The History of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is an important Jewish holiday that’s also celebrated during the winter months. With December 20th marking the end of this year’s Hanukkah celebrations, I thought it would be worthwhile and important to share why Hanukkah is such an important holiday to so many people – after all, it’s important to know what these holidays are in order to be more inclusive and welcoming of diverse religions, cultures, and those who don’t always come from the same societies or backgrounds as you.

While the Israel-Palestinian conflict remains unsolved and problematic for many people, it’s still important to acknowledge an important Jewish holiday and allow people to still celebrate their culture. If I have messed up in any way, shape, or form with this holiday post, please let me know and I’ll fix it right away. I am not intentionally trying to misrepresent the Jewish religion in any way, and I hope that I can shed light on an amazing spiritual and religious tradition for those who don’t know enough about it.

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it was freed from the control of King Antiochus III of Syria after he ordered his soldiers to plunder and spoil the Temple after he took control of Jerusalem and the rest of the Israelite kingdom. After the King of Syria gained control over Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, he outlawed Judaism and ordered an altar for Zeus to be built in the Temple. He also outlawed the practice of circumcision to be stopped and gave an order for the practice of sacrificing pigs on the Temple’s altar to start taking place. A revolt followed this, and continues for a number of years until it successfully throws off Syrian control of the Temple and is followed by a struggle for Jewish autonomy and freedom.

After the Holy Temple was freed from Syrian control and rededicated to the Israelite God and the Jewish religion, the holiday of Hanukkah was created in order to celebrate the joyous occasion. In order to light the menorah in the temple, an unopened and pure (meaning it wasn’t defiled or soiled, and it was blessed by a high priest) jar of oil was needed to keep the candles light throughout the night. However, only enough oil to light the menorah for one night was found, and it wouldn’t give the people enough time to find more holy oil for the lamp. With the grace and good will of God, the menorah burned for eight days instead of the one that it was supposed to burn for. This gave the people enough time to prepare more kosher oil for the Temple’s menorah. As a result, an eight-day celebration and festival was declared to commemorate the event; a celebration sometimes known as the Festival of Lights.

With the yearly celebration of Hanukkah, it typically falls in late November to early December of the Gregorian calendar (a.k.a., the calendar that most Western/European cultures use), and it starts when nightfall happens on the first night. Many Jewish families give gifts to each other every night to commemorate the happiness and feeling of love, warmth, and gratitude of the holiday. Fried foods are cooked and eaten during the eight-day celebration as a reminder of the role that oil played in the initial celebration of the holiday.

Every night, a candle is lit on the menorah, and a universal practice is to increase the number of candles lit each night (so by the second night, there are two candles lit, and by the third night, there are three candles lit, etc.). There tends to be a ninth candle – a “shamash” (i.e. “attendant”) – candle is lit and is usually higher than the rest of the candles on the menorah. The shamash candle is a reminder to use the menorah only for the celebration of Hanukkah and to meditate on and share the meaning of the lights and the miracle of Hanukkah.

Most of the time, unless open flames and candles aren’t allowed (such as in hospital rooms), candles should be used for lighting the menorah. The candles being lit should only burn for the first half an hour after nightfall, and the tradition is to light them after sundown on every day except for the Shabbat. During the Shabbat, the candles should be lit during the day. Two blessings are said over the candle while it’s being lighted, one blessing for lighting the candles and one blessing for the miracles of Hanukkah.

The candle on the far right side of the menorah is lit the first night of Hanukkah celebrations, and from there each subsequent candle is lit first before the previous candles (i.e., on the second night, the second candle is lit before the first night’s candle is lit, the third candle is lit before the candles for the previous two nights are lit on the third night, and so on until the eighth night).

Additional prayers are said during the eight days that Hanukkah is celebrated, and a game of dreidel is played after the candles are lit every night. Dreidel has four letters of the Hebrew alphabet that read as an acronym for the phrase “a great miracle happened there.” It’s a game that is typically played for treats and the winner is determined by which side the dreidel falls on for the person who spun it. Fried foods such as jelly-filled donuts, latkes, fritters, and sufganiyot are eaten in celebration, and gelt (gifts of money given out during Hanukkah) are given out to young children in celebration of the holiday.

For more information on this amazing holiday, visit:

Hanukkah 101

If you’d like to keep up with LHT’s Holidays page, click here!

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Briana Maddox View All →

As an recent college graduate who studied media studies and anthropology in college, Briana Maddox enjoys learning about different cultures, traditions, holidays, historical figures, experiences, and opinions. With a vested interest in sharing such learning experiences, Briana created Life & Anthropology in the hopes of helping other people gain a better understanding and working knowledge of such topics.

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