At sundown this Sunday, Hanukkah officially begins and will last for eight days. But there's more to the "Festival of Lights" than just latkes and menorahs — although, those are pretty major — and the Jewish holiday commemorates a very important point in history.
Hanukkah means "dedication," and it celebrates a miracle that happened way back in the year 168 BCE, according to the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). As the story goes, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, Syrians destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Syrian king forbid people from practicing Judaism, and turned their temple into an altar for the Greek god Zeus.
Meanwhile, a small group of Jewish people, called the Maccabees, fought the Syrians and and reclaimed their temple. However, after their victory, they only found one can of oil left over in the temple, that would only last for one day. They sent a messenger to go get more oil to light their menorah. It took this messenger eight days to get this new oil, but the solitary oil burned for eight days. And thus, the first Hanukkah occurred. Since the whole theme of Hanukkah revolves around miracle oil, foods cooked in oil are often eaten during the holiday, such as potato pancakes, called latkes, and jelly doughtnuts, called sufganiyots.
"The story of most Jewish holidays is that Jews were an oppressed people — by their host civilization, basically — and it was unjust," says Rebecca Bass, program and membership coordinator of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine. "We fought against our oppressors, defeated them against all odds, and then we all ate and celebrated — so, that happened in the story of Hanukkah."
Today, Jewish people still celebrate this victory by lighting a menorah (a candelabrum with nine branches) for eight nights, saying a Hebrew blessing, and eating with friends and family.
During a Hanukkah celebration, many people play a game involving a dreidel, or a spinning top toy, printed with Hebrew letters on each side that stand for, "A great miracle happened there." Chocolate coins (aka "gelt") are used as currency in the dreidel game, and historically Hanukkah was the only time during the year that rabbis were allowed to gamble, according to the URJ. While playing dreidel, you might sing songs like, "I Have A Little Dreidel."
In many modern-day Hanukkah celebrations, gifts are also exchanged, although that's not necessarily part of the actual religious history. As Hanukkah often falls around Christmas, gifts are also exchanged now in many modern-day Hanukkah celebrations.
However you celebrate Hanukkah — whether you light the menorah, eat latkes with your local Hillel, or just watch A Rugrats Chanukah (which, BTW, is very good, Bass says) — the message of dedication and finding light in dark times still holds true.