Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday sometimes referred to as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day celebration of the re-dedication of the Temple.
The celebration of Hanukkah is described in the Talmud. Jerusalem was seized by Syrian/Greeks in the year 168 BC. Among other atrocities, they desecrated the Temple by dedicating it to the worship of their god, Zeus. In the following year, emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes decreed that the observance of Judaism would be punishable by death. Jews throughout the land were harrassed; the Greek soldiers attempted to force them into performing acts that were contrary to Jewish law (such as the eating of pork).
One Jewish High Priest of note: Mattathias (variously, Mattityahu), of the village of Modiin, was ordered to worship the idol of a Greek god and eat pork meat; but he refused. The Greek soldiers insisted that he acquiesce to their demands. He continued to refuse. Then another villager offered to submit to the Greek soldiers' demands. This angered Mattathias, who immediately drew his sword and fatally stabbed the villager. He then killed the leader of the Greek soldiers. The sons of Mattathias and the other villagers stepped in and slew the rest of the Greek soldiers.
Mattathias and his five sons, Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah, along with many other Jews, went into hiding in the nearby mountains. As their ranks swelled, they became known as the Maccabees (variously, Hasmoneans).
The Maccabees revolted against the Greek overlords in 165 BC, and were triumphant. They regained control of Jerusalem and their Holy Temple, but it needed to be cleansed and rededicated to G-d. Mattathias had died in the year 166, and so the cleansing and rededication of the Temple was supervised by his son, Judah.
In order to purify the Temple it would be necessary to burn pure ritual olive oil in the Temple's menorah for a period of eight days. A search of the Temple revealed that only a day's worth supply of oil that had not been profaned by the Greeks could be found. It would take eight days to press and prepare new oil. The decision was made to light the menorah with the meagre amount of oil, and much to the people's surprise, the small amount of oil actually lasted through the full eight days.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote in his Jewish Antiquities XII that Judas Maccabbeus called for a yearly eight-day festival, called the Festival of Lights.
To commemorate the miracle of the oil, Hanukkah is celebrated, during which time a special menorah called a hanukkiyah is lit. On the first night of Hanukkah one candle of the hanukkiyah is lit. On the second night two candles are lit, and so forth until the eighth night all eight candles are lit. [It should be noted that the hanukkiyah actually consists of nine branches. The ninth branch, the shamash, is intended to hold a candle for normal use since it is forbidden to use the Hanukkah candles for normal lighting. In many cases, the shamash candle is lit first, and then it is used to light the Hanukkah candles.]
Tradition calls for the Hanukkah candles to burn for at least one half hour after it gets dark, thusly most families light their hanukkiyah at sundown. Friday night is an exception to this because candles may not be lit on the Shabbat, which starts at sundown. The solution is to light the Hanukkah candles before sundown, and therefore before Shabbat starts, allowing them to burn for the required half hour after sundown.
The lighting of the candle(s) is performed according to tradition: On the first night, a candle is placed in the rightmost branch of the menorah and is lit. On the second night, a second candle is placed in the branch of the menorah to the left of the rightmost branch. This second candle is lit first, and then the candle placed during the previous night is lit secondly. The pattern continues through the eight nights of the festival: new candles are placed to the left of the previous, and then all are lit starting with that newly placed candle and working toward the right.
Despite the fact that the celebration of Hanukkah is not one of the more important Jewish holidays, it has nevertheless become one of the most popular. The reason is very simple: it occurs during the time that Christians are celebrating Christmas. The festivities and spirit of Christmas has, over time, influenced how Hanukkah has been celebrated, causing it to be very festive and a time for gift giving to the children. In fact, many Jewish families exchange small gifts during each of the eight nights.
Throughout the eight-day festival, there are a number of family-oriented rituals intermixed with community-oriented ones.
There are three blessings which are recited during the eight-day festival, known as Brachot. On the first night, all three blessings are recited, and on the remaining nights, only the first two are recited. Each family has its own tradition of whether to recite the blessings before the lighting of the candle(s) or after.
Hymns are sung after the lighting of the candles. These hymns include the "Hanerot Halalu" and the "Maoz Tzur".
Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil, and as a result, many of the foods which are popular for the holiday are ones which are fried in oil. These include latkes, potato and onion pancakes fried in oil and served with applesauce, sufganiyot, jelly-filled donuts that are fried and dusted with confectioners sugar, bimuelos, fritters, and loukoumades, deep-fried honey puffs that are dipped in honey or sugar.
A traditional game played by children during Hanukkah is spinning the dreidel. The dreidel is a four-sided top, on whose sides are painted the four letters: nun, gimel, hey and shin. The children would be given chocolate candy shaped to resemble coins and wrapped in gold foil. Each player in turn would spin the dreidel and as it came to a stop with one side aimed upward, the letter that was displayed would direct the player to either take a 'coin' or place one in the pot. This game grew out of a tradition that when the Greek soldiers would appear at the door of a Jewish house, to hide the fact that they were studying the Torah, they would quickly spin a dreidel. The Greek soldiers would be led to believe that they were simply gambling.
The observance of Hanukkah varies according to the Hebrew calendar. It always begins on the 25th day of Kislev, and concludes on the 2nd or 3rd day of Tevet. This corresponds to the last week of November to the third or fourth week of December in the Christian calendar..