Starting on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days and nights. It coincides with late November or late December on the secular calendar. This year Hanukkah begins today, December 8, at sundown.
It all began in 168 B.C.E. when the Jewish Temple was seized by Syrian-Greek soldiers and dedicated to the worship of the god Zeus. Many of the Jewish people were afraid to fight back because of the kind of payback that would take place. One year later in 167 B.C.E. the emperor Antiochus forced the Jewish people to worship Greek gods and made the observance of Judaism an offense punishable by death.
Jewish resistance started in the village of Modiin near Jerusalem, when a Jewish High Priest called, Mattathias, was ordered to bow down to an idol and eat the flesh of a pig. These practices are forbidden to Jews. Mattathias refused. When another villager stepped forward to take his place, Mattathias killed the villager as well as the Greek officer. His five sons and the other villagers then killed the remaining soldiers. More people joined the resistance against the Greeks, which eventually led to the Jews retaking their lands.
After regaining control they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem, which had by this time been spiritually defiled. Intent on purifying the temple by burning ritual oil in the Temple’s menorah for eight days, they were dismayed to find that there was only enough oil for one day. They lit the menorah anyway and a miracle happened—the oil lasted the full eight days.
The miracle of the Hanukkah oil is celebrated every year when Jews light a special menorah known as a hanukkiyah for eight days. The Hanukkah menorah has eight candle holders in a row with a ninth, which is a helper candle called a shamash, placed in the middle and set above the others. Starting from the left side one candle is lit, using the helper candle, on the first night, two on the second and so on until all the candles are lit on the eighth day.
A gift is exchanged between friends and family on each of the eight days of Hanukkah. Another Hanukkah tradition is spinning the dreidel which is a game played with a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on each side.
Because Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil, it is also traditional to eat fried foods such as latkes. Latkes are delicious pancakes made out of potatoes and onions, which are fried in oil and then served with applesauce.