A Short History and Overview of Hanukkah

(Last Updated On: November 20, 2019)
History of Hanukkah

There are some holidays that have become so massive that even if you don’t practice them, chances are you have at least heard of them. Christmas is obviously one of the biggest examples of this, with hundreds of millions of people all over the world being aware of the holiday and what it represents. 

Another holiday that occurs close to the same time of year as Christmas, and is almost just as widely known, is the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. This is a holiday that has made appearances in countless works of fiction and nonfiction, including some of the most popular TV shows and movies of all time.

Apart from knowing it’s a Jewish holiday, the vast majority of the population has no idea what exactly Hanukkah is. Chances are that most people’s knowledge of the holiday extends to the fact that it includes candles and multiple days of gift giving. However, this Jewish holiday is so much more than that. In fact, its roots are quite extraordinary. Here is a short history and overview of Hanukkah. 

History of Hanukkah

In order to get the story behind the very first Hanukkah, we have to travel all the way back to 168 B.C. It is at this time that Jewish people faced one of their biggest struggles, which was the invasion of the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. 

Unlike the previous king, this one was not tolerant of other religions and began a massive campaign of killing any Jewish people who would not willingly convert to the Greek religion. As part of this reign of terror, one of the king’s armies invaded Jerusalem’s holy Second Temple and converted it into a place to worship the Greek gods. 

The Jewish people came together and rebelled against their oppressors. They did so under the leadership of the Maccabee family, who were a group of respected priests. Two of the most important members of the family were the father Matthathias and his son Judah. Together, they managed to lead a small group of Jewish rebels against the Syrian army and managed to drive them completely out of the city within a couple of years. 

It was at this point that Judah Maccabee and his followers began to rededicate the Second Temple to their Jewish faith. As part of this ceremonial transition, they were tasked with once again lighting the temple’s “ner tamid” (eternal light) that was supposed to be continually burning. This is where the miracle of the oil originates from. It is also the reason Hanukkah lasts eight days. 

How Hanukkah Became 8 Days Long

As if they hadn’t been through enough already, when the Jewish collective went to get the oil in order to ignite the eternal light, they discovered they only had enough to last one day of burning. They could not risk the eternal light going out again so soon, so they dispatched someone to go find more oil.

Unfortunately, the individual they sent out was not able to find oil right away. In fact, it took them eight days in order to get more oil and return to the temple. What was miraculous about this is the fact that the little amount of oil that remained in the temple managed to remain burn for the entire eight days. 

Seen as a holy sign, the Jewish people decided to set aside eight days for a celebration of this incredible event. Thus, the holiday of Hanukkah was born and has since gone by a number of different names, including the Festival of Lights, Chanukah, and Festival of Rededication.

How Hanukkah Is Celebrated

The modern version of Hanukkah is vastly different than how it was originally celebrated or even how it was celebrated 100 years ago. In fact, the tradition of giving small gifts on each day of Hanukkah was only introduced to the holiday in the early 20th century. This was seen as an attempt to compete with the more popular holiday of Christmas and try to make the little-practiced holiday a bit more widespread among the Jewish community. 

One element of Hanukkah that has always remained the same is the role of the menorah, which is typically known as hanukkiah when used for Hanukkah. This ceremonial candle holder consists of eight different branches, which symbolize the eight days that the oil burned, with a special ninth holder slot located in the middle. 

The shammash, which is also known as the helper candle, is placed in the middle slot and is used to light the other candles in the hanukkiah. Each night of the celebration, there is a new candle added to hanukkiah. These are meant to be added from the right side to the left, although they are then lit in the opposite order. On the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, all of the candle slots are filled and lit. 

Other customary traditions that are part of this holiday include saying various prayers and eating different types of food that are fried in oil. Some of the most popular examples of Hanukkah foods are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). 

In accordance with the Hebrew calendar, the first day of Hanukkah lands on the 25th of Kislev. This tends to be sometime in the month of December or November on traditional calendars, which is one of the many reasons why some people tend to view Hanukkah as “Jewish Christmas.” 


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