What it's all about
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by the Syrian Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah almost always comes in December, when the days are shortest and the nights are darkest and when Jews need something to compete with Christmas.
Hanukkah celebrates liberation from oppression, and reminds us of the importance of freedom of religion. It also teaches us to fight back when people’s rights are taken away.
In 167 BCE King Antiochus IV had control over Israel and turned the Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan shrine. The Jews began to revolt three years later, led by Judah the Maccabee. Eventually Judah and his followers were able to recapture the Temple. Later, a rabbinic tradition held that when the Maccabees were rededicating the Temple they found only a small vessel of pure oil with which to light the golden Menorah. That amount of oil should only have lasted for one day but it miraculously burned for eight days, which is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days.
Lighting the hanukkiah (also called a menorah), an eight-branched candelabrum, is a big part of celebrating the holiday. On the first night you light one candle, plus the shamash, the candle used to light the others. Every night you add one more candle, until on the last night all eight candles are lit.
In commemoration of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days you eat lots of fried foods, like latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. Children play dreidel, a game of luck that involves spinning a top. Many families have the custom of giving gifts at some point during the holiday and others choose to give a gift each night.
If you're looking for an excuse to have a party, Hanukkah is a great time to do it. There's nothing like inviting over a bunch of toddlers, frying up some potatoes and donuts, and singing the latest Hanukkah hits.