Jews around the world welcomed the eight-day festival of Hanukkah on Saturday Dec 24, 2016 with ceremonial lighting of candles, feasting on potato pancakes and doughnuts, and exchanging gifts.
The festival of light commemorates the return of the Holy Temple to Jews in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, during the second century BC.
In 168 B.C. the Holy Temple, the principle place of worship for Jews in Israel, was seized by the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus and made into a temple for the Greek god Zeus. Antiochus ordered all Jews to worship Greek gods, and made practicing Judaism punishable by death.
While this really upset the Jewish people, they were afraid to fight back. That was until Mattathias, a Jewish high priest, led a revolution and against great odds defeated the Greeks and won back Jerusalem.
Soon after their victory the Jews wanted to rededicate the Holy Temple to Judaism through the ritual of burning olive oil in the temple’s menorah for eight days. But they discovered that they only had one day's worth of oil left. They lit the menorah anyway and to their surprise the small amount of oil lasted the entire eight days, until fresh olive oil was prepared.
Hanukkah is a celebration of that miracle. A new candle is lit on each night of the festival for eight days, and the ninth candle stays lit. The word Hanukkah or Chanukah, means “dedication” in Hebrew, the language spoken by Jews.
While Hanukkah isn’t the biggest Jewish holiday and did not traditionally involve gifts, it is widely celebrated today partly because it falls around Christmas. Families gather and exchange gifts, often one for each of the eight nights.
Along with the lighting of the menorah, Hanukkah is celebrated by children by playing a game that involves spinning a dreidel, a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on each side. Children bet on what letter will show when the dreidel stops spinning, and win chocolate coins for guessing correctly. Hanukkah also involves eating a lot of traditional fried foods like “latkes” or potato pancakes, and “sufganiyot” or jelly-filled donuts.