After the Macabees unfurled their guerrilla forces against the Syrian Greeks and won, the Jews celebrated the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which is known as Hanukkah.
The Festival of Rededication, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day festival and takes place in December, at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere.
According to the ancient story, when the Jews rededicated the Holy Temple, there was very little oil remaining to light the Temple menorah (or candelabra) – as the bulk of the lamp oil had been polluted. But, the oil that was only enough for one day, miraculously lasted eight days. This is considered to be the origin of the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah.
Much of the activity of Hanukkah takes place at home. Central to the holiday is the lighting of the hanukkiah, an eight-branched candelabrum to which one candle is added on each day of the holiday until it is ablaze with light on the eighth day.
One way to celebrate Hanukkah is to eat – in commemoration of the legendary curse of oil, it is traditional to eat foods fried in oil.
The most familiar Hanukkah foods are the Ashkenazi potato pancakes, or latkes, and the Sephardic favorite, jelly donuts, or sufganiyot. (Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe and their descendants. Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants.) Stop by your local Bäckerei for a jelly donut or check out a potato pancake recipe online – everyone has their version of a favorite.
The tradition developed in Europe to give small amounts of money as well as nuts and raisins to children at this time.
Under the influence of Christmas, which takes place around the same time of year, Hanukkah has evolved into the central gift-giving holiday in the Jewish calendar in the Western world.
A favorite Hanukkah activity is a gambling game played with a four-sided spinning top known in Yiddish as a dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew.) Four Hebrew letters – nun, gimel, hey, and shin – adorn the sides of the dreidel; they represent the words nes gadol hayah sham, meaning, “a great miracle happened there.”