The History and Celebration of Hanukkah

Photo+courtesy+of+Shutterstock

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Everybody knows that there’s Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, but how much do people really know about the specific history of each holiday? To cover all of these holidays in one article would be a bit overwhelming, so this article will focus on Hanukkah. 

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish holiday that lasts eight days in December. The story of Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev (a month in the Jewish calendar ) around 200 BC, when King Antiochus destroyed the most holy Jewish temple in Islam. He forced his people to practice the Greek religion. He and his soldiers killed tens of thousands of people as punishment for practicing Judaism. This continued until one day when a former Jewish priest by the name Mattathias killed a soldier that was forcing him to make a sacrifice to Zeus. This caused an uprising of the Jewish people, killing the soldiers who forced them to practice the Greek religion. The three-year-long war was lead by Mattathias’ four sons, known as the Maccabees.

After the war, the sons went back to their temple to rebuild it. They finished rebuilding on the 25th of Kislev. “…There was just enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one day,” says Joana Champion, a lifelong practitioner of Judaism, “but a great miracle happened and the oil lasted for eight days.” 

Traditionally, Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting a new candle on the menorah (candle holder) with the shammash (the ninth candle) each day. Some people play games to celebrate, the most notable of which is the dreidel game. Giving presents is another way to celebrate. These gifts are often small, they’re known as Matanot l’Evyonim, or “gifts for the poor.” “Some gifts were simply pictures of [my children] in dollar store frames, aprons with their names, pictures or ornaments of their grand parents… We had so many children and not a lot of money but every gift came from the heart,” Champion said about her personal traditions. Fried foods such as potato latkes (a food similar to hash browns) and doughnuts are common during this time due to the oil lamp that burned eight days. Gelts, or chocolate coins, are also popular to give to children during Hanukkah. “My mother was a widow shortly after I was born. We never had a lot of gifts but we would light candles, eat latkes, and play the dreidel game. We got small gifts, socks, candy and stuff like that,” Champion explains.

Hanukkah is a very important holiday to those who practice Judaism. It is a time for family and friends to get together and celebrate the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem by giving gifts, eating, playing games, and practicing family traditions. Although you may not practice Judaism or celebrate Hanukkah, it’s important to understand and respect the ways that other people practice their religion. Have a great holiday season, no matter what you celebrate.