The story of Hanukkah: the Festival of Lights
Everyone in America is mostly familiar with the jolly story of Christmas: Santa Claus and his elves work year-round making toys for the good boys and girls of the world until December 24th, when he travels the entire world in his sleigh to deliver everyone’s presents… very believable. However, the story of the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, is one that has not reached the same audience of Christmas. So today I’m here to tell you the story of the Festival of Lights.
The story begins thousands of years ago, back to the year 168 B.C.E., when Emperor Antiochus III ruled over the land of Israel, and had a hatred for the Jewish people that lived on in the land. Antiochus III outlawed the practice of Judaism in order to have the Jews move somewhere else. Instead, families remained where they were and practiced their religion in secrecy. Parents would teach children Hebrew letters using the dreidel, a clay top with four sides and different letters on each side; they taught it as a game, with each side representing a certain number of points the winner could collect. Antiochus discovered the practice had continued so he sent in his strongest armed forces. Antiochus’s army began sacrificing Jews in their own temples and forcing them to follow his own religion of idolizing more than one god, a huge “no-no” in the Jewish religion. After some time, a victim stood up to this terror and attacked Antiochus’ men; a war had begun.
The Jewish families collected weapons and began training under the supervision of Mattathias, the leader of the Maccabees army. He and his five sons started a generation of resistance towards Antiochus and his evil practices, until Mattathias died and left his oldest son, Judah, in charge. Through unique strategy, the Maccabee army overcame Antiochus’ forces, and purged the land of Israel of the ferocious enemies. In victory, the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem from any more invaders, and won the battle on the 25th day of Kislev, an autumn month that occurs around November-December (the Jewish religion dates their holidays according to the lunar calendar). When the Maccabees arrived to celebrate at their temple, they came across only one jar of oil, only enough to light the ceremonial candelabrum, or menorah. However, a miracle occurred and the oil kept the menorah lit for eight nights.
Jewish families around the world celebrate the story of the Maccabees defeating their enemies every year on the 25th of Kislev, whenever that may fall. Families traditionally exchange small gifts every night of Hanukkah, just as parents would give small children gelt, or chocolate coins, for studying during Hanukkah. As Hanukkah occurred around the general time of Christmas, Jewish children felt excluded in the gift giving activities their peers would encounter, so just as Christmas became commercialized around the early 1900’s, so did Hanukkah.
During Hanukkah, popular foods to eat are anything fried; the oil that cooks the food symbolizes the oil that burned for eight nights. These foods are generally jelly-filled donuts, or sufganiyah, and potato pancakes called latkes.
Holiday traditions vary from religions and ethnicities, but it is important to stay mindful of those who share similarities or differences. This holiday season, try learning about a new holiday or a contrasting tradition someone follows. Here you’ve learned the story of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, but there are many there to learn about.