Hanukkah is an eight-day long festive holiday that commemorates an improbable victory, some 22 centuries ago, by the Maccabees, a band of Jewish guerilla fighters seeking to reclaim their land, their Temple and their sovereignty from the oppressive rule of the Syrian Greek Empire (also sometimes called the Seleucid Empire).
History of Hanukkah
The word “Hanukkah” means “dedication,” and it refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem which took place after the Maccabees’ victory in 164 BCE. Once the Maccabees had restored the Temple and re-purified it, the traditional story says that they sought to relight a lamp known as the “eternal flame.” But only one day’s worth of consecrated olive oil could be found, and it would be awhile before more could be produced. No one wanted to light the eternal flame only to see it sputter out after a day, but there was also a deep spiritual desire to rekindle the sacred lamp immediately. The priests decided to light it and hope for the best. Miraculously, it burned for eight days until fresh jars of olive oil were finally brought to keep the flame alive. Hence, the eight nights of candle lighting for Hanukkah.
Festival of Lights
Like winter holidays of many other religions, Hanukkah emphasizes light during the darkest part of the year. The main observances are lighting a menorah (a ceremonial candelabra), spinning a top called a dreidel in a game of chance and eating fried foods (to symbolize the oil in the story). It’s a holiday in which you get to set things on fire, gamble and eat junk food!
Though it’s a minor religious holiday, Hanukkah among American Jews has become enormously popular. It’s a festival of light in the winter, it celebrates victorious underdogs and it fits the “they tried to kill us/we won /let’s eat” rubric that animates Jewish holidays like Passover and Purim.
Complexity in the Hanukkah Story
More seriously, however, the military victory that Hanukkah commemorates also involved civil warfare between different Jewish factions. The Maccabees represented a priestly family that had for some time been in conflict with some of the elites in Jewish society who had chosen to assimilate into Syrian Greek religious and cultural life. The initial fighting began between Jewish factions, but quickly grew into a full-fledged war with the Syrian Greeks who had imposed many aspects of their polytheistic religion on the Jews. For a kid-friendly account of the Hanukkah story that includes the complexities of the civil war as well as the better-known battle against the Syrian Greeks, see Joel Lurie Grishaver’s The True Story of Hanukkah. For an overview of the ancient texts that form the basis of the Hanukkah story, this page at MyJewishLearning.com is very helpful.
After the Maccabees won and came to power (about 2150 years ago), they instituted Hanukkah as a new major holiday in ancient Israel. Several centuries later, after a new empire, Rome, had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and exiled most Jews from Israel, the rabbis who came to lead the surviving Jews downplayed the importance of Hanukkah. For multiple reasons, they chose to emphasize the miracle of the sacred light that burned for eight days despite there only being one day’s worth of oil, and to downplay the importance of the military victory. For many centuries, Hanukkah quietly appeared every winter as a minor yet festive occasion.
In modern times, Hanukkah is having a bit of a heyday. Always arriving roughly around the same time as Christmas, Hanukkah has absorbed some of the universal elements animating the Christmas season (including some of the materialistic and commercial excesses that many Christians and Jews have come to dislike). Previously, there was no Jewish tradition of exchanging gifts during Hanukkah; no big drama over kids getting presents. But in every place Jews have lived they have adapted their holidays and customs, often absorbing elements from the majority culture and reframing them in a Jewish context. American Hanukkah is a prime example of this.
This Jewish adaptive pattern of “absorbing and Jewishly customizing” other cultures’ practices isn’t a bad thing—rather, it's an important part of how Judaism has evolved and stayed relevant across so many places and historical times. One important aspect of Hanukkah that’s become amplified in modern American society is the story of ancient Jews fighting for their right to worship freely against an empire that sought to impose its own religious beliefs upon them. American Jewish culture has cultivated that storyline into a celebration of religious freedom and freedom from persecution for religious minorities in American society.
'Tis the Season
Hanukkah now takes its place alongside Christmas as part of a religiously pluralistic holiday season. Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice chime in as well to round out a shared civic sense of winter celebration.
At this time more Americans than ever before have Christmas and Hanukkah in their lives in some way, either due to their own interfaith families or via relatives or friends. Many regard this current moment as a golden era of pluralism and mutual religious appreciation.
This is not to deny that sometimes the December holidays involve negotiation or even conflict within some families. But we should keep in mind the historical significance that we live in a time in which Americans celebrating either or both holidays have come to find it so normal to participate in aspects of both. We have a lot to be thankful for, given the difficult histories Jews and Christians have had for many centuries before this time of unprecedented pluralism and acceptance.