More than 2,000 years ago in what is now called Israel, a Syrian king named Antiochus ruled. He tried to force all of the Jewish people who lived in his land to follow the Greek gods. Many Jews were opposed to this, including a man named Judah Maccabee, whose last name meant "hammer." Judah and his four brothers joined together to lead a rebellion against the Syrians that lasted three years. The Maccabees finally made the Syrians leave Israel so the Jews could once again worship their god in the temple of Jerusalem.
The Jewish people decided to clean all the Greek symbols out of the temple, and on the 25th day of Kislev, the Jewish month, they finished. Next, they decided they wanted to have an eternal flame, meaning that once the light was lit, it would never be put out.
They could only find a tiny amount of oil, which they thought would last just a day. But they lit it anyway, and to everyone's great surprise, according to legend, it burned for eight days!
Today, people celebrate Hanukkah to remember defeating the Syrians and reviving the Temple of Jerusalem. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days to mark the eight days the oil burned.
People celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles on a menorah, which is also called a Hanukiyah. Each night, one more candle is lit. There are nine candle spaces on the Hanukiyah. The middle one is called the Shamash. The Shamash is the first candle lit and it is used to light all of the other candles. Many people also exchange Hanukkah gifts with their family and friends.
Because the Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, Hanukkah (and other Jewish holidays) occur at slightly different times each year. In 2020, Hanukkah begins on December 10 and lasts until December 18. Even if you don't celebrate Hanukkah, you now know the importance of this holiday in the Jewish faith and how much fun celebrating can be. Here are some ways to get involved in the Hanukkah celebration.
- Make your own menorah. Lots of ceramics stores have menorahs you can paint and either keep or give as a gift to someone else.
- Celebrate with another family. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not, it is still fun to celebrate with another family so they can teach you their traditions and you can learn from them or teach them your way of celebrating.
- At home, you can help light the candles on the menorah, but make sure an adult helps you.
- Another way to help out is with cooking. A common food eaten during Hanukkah is latkes. These are potato pancakes that are often served with sour cream and applesauce.
- Decorate in the traditional Hanukkah colors: blue, white and silver.
- Play with a dreidel, a four-sided toy that you spin. Depending on which side you land on, you either gain or lose something, such as coins or chocolate coins (called gelt).
This Hanukkah, try celebrating in a way you have never done before. You could even organize a celebration that involves your friends and family. Even if you don't celebrate Hanukkah, this year you could learn more about the holiday and help someone else celebrate. A great idea is to have an all-holiday party, in which all of the winter holidays are celebrated, and everyone can share their traditions.
Reviewed by: Nancy Brown, Ph.D.
Last reviewed: July 2019