When one sees the month of December approaching on the calendar, they automatically associate it with the holidays. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve are popular celebrations across the United States. It’s incorrect to consider Hanukkah the Jewish version of Christmas. Hanukkah, originally a minor holiday, was elevated to a major holiday in the 1920s when Jews acclimated themselves to the United States, a predominantly Christian country. Gift-giving has no place in Hanukkah, but the Jewish people noticed their children were feeling “left out” watching the Christian children exchange gifts. It was then that Jews began exchanging gifts during Hanukkah.
In the year 168 BCE, Syrian soldiers were sent to Jerusalem to desecrate the Temple, the holiest place to the Jewish people. Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian tyrant, set-up Greek gods for worship, and abolished Judaism, offering Jews two options: conversion or death.
On the 25th of Kislev, the Hebrew month, in 168 BCE, the Temple was renamed for the Greek god Zeus. The Hasmoneans, more commonly known as the Maccabees, led a resistance movement fighting against the cruelty they endured. Judah Maccabee and his fighters were outnumbered, but miraculously won. Jews remember the successful fight against the Syrians and take pride in knowing that Judaism endured, against all odds.
The Hanukkah legend begins when the Maccabees entered the Temple to reclaim it from the Greeks, they immediately re-lite the eternal light, or “ner tamid.” In the Temple, they found a single jar of oil, which was only enough light for one day, but miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. After defeating the Syrians, the story of the jar of oil appeared in the Talmud.
The word “Hanukkah,” means “dedication,” and commemorates the rededication of the Temple. Jews remind themselves on Hanukkah to rededicate themselves to stand up for Judaism, Jewish religion, culture and identity.
Surprisingly, Hanukkah isn’t referenced in the Bible, but the historical events and celebration are contained in Maccabees I and II. “Hanukkah,” also known as the Festival of Lights, unites Jews around the world when lighting the menorah, the Hebrew word for lamp. The menorah, an eight-branched candelabra with the “shamash” or center candle, is lit every night after sunset. The shamash is lit and one candle is added on each night of the eight-night holiday.