Chanukah is a Jewish festival celebrated for eight days and nights, beginning after the sunset of the 24th day of Kislev on Hebrew calendar (November-December on the Gregorian calendar). It is also called the festival of lights and is celebrated by lighting candles.
The word Chanukah (also spelled Hanukkah) in Hebrew means “dedication”. The Jewish celebration of Chanukah is uniquely related to winter solstice and commemorates the story of religious freedom.
On this day the Jews celebrate the victory of Maccabees military over the Greek-Syrians and the rebirth of the Second Temple, which had been dishonored by the Greek-Syrians. Canukah is rather a celebration of Jewish national endurance.
The story behind Chanukah
You might be interested in the story behind the festival of Chanukah. During the 2nd century BC, the dominant Hellenist Syrians proscribed the Jewish faith. At the time of the winter solstice, they desecrated the temple of Jerusalem and extinguished the light of the menorah, which use to burn before the altar.
The Maccabees defeated the Syrians and restored the temple exactly after three years. So, who were the Maccabees? In short, Judah Maccabee and his four brothers who organized a group of fighters to fight against religious hounding and oppression were known as the Maccabees.
The Maccabees, used guerilla warfare, and unbelievably succeeded in driving the larger army of Syrian s out of Judea. To celebrate the occasion, the Maccabees wanted to light the Menorah in the Second Temple. They searched everywhere only to find a small flask having enough oil to light the Menorah for a day. However, miraculously the oil lasted for eight days.
So, even today Jews celebrate Chanukah for eight days by lighting candles in a Menorah every night, which commemorates the eight days of miracle.
The principal ritual of contemporary Hanuka celebrations is the lighting of the candles. One is lit on the first night, two on the second night and this continues until candles all the eight candles are lit in the Menorah.
The Menorah is a special candelabrum with nine branches. The eight candles lit on Menorah signifying the eight days of Chanuka are of the same height, and the one in the middle called shamash (meaning servant) is taller and helps in lighting the others.
During the Chanukah every evening, families gather around the Menorah and it is lit in commemoration of the miracles. Special blessing are also offered in Chanukah.
Chanuka is festival of fun and frolic, especially for children. As the lighting of Hanukah candles is over, families eat and play games, often with the guests. Dreidel is one such traditional Hanukkah game, having so simple rules that the whole family tots to grandparents can play together.
Chanukah is celebrated by eating foods cooked in oil, as a tribute to the oil that is burned in the temple. Potato pancakes known as latkes in Yiddish are customarily associated with the festival worldwide (mainly among Ashkenazi families). For Israelis, the favorite Hanukkah food is soofganiot, which is a sort of jelly donut cooked in oil.
A custom of giving gelt (money) as gifts to children on Chanukah has evolved into a tradition in most of the Jewish families nowadays.