Hanukkah dates back more than 2000 years to 156 BCE. It is a celebration of both the hard-fought battle between the Syrians and the Jews and the repairing of the temple which had been previously ransacked by the invaders. The Hanukkah story focuses on two significant people: Judas Maccabeus, the leader of the Jewish army, and Antiochus, the leader of the Syrian army. The story says that Judas formed a small army called the Maccabees, and that the only way they won was because of a miracle bestowed upon them by God. After the battle, the Jews rebuilt and purified their temple, and in celebration, Judas stated that the eight days following their victory were to be dedicated to that day. The holiday is sometimes referred to as the Festival of Lights because to celebrate their victory, the Maccabees lit the menorah they had put up in the temple.
Nowadays, the message is still the same, however, many of the traditions have changed. People still light menorahs each night and still play with dreidels, but the menorah is lit with a match instead of oil. Today, the menorah is brought inside for decoration and celebration, however, in the Maccabees’ days, the menorah was brought inside to defend against attackers. There are also many customs that go along with Hanukkah now that were not mentioned by Judas; for example, we eat potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, both of which are cooked in oil symbolizing the oil used to light the original menorah. Another tradition is handing out chocolate coins known as gelt, which are used in a game with dreidels, the little tops that have Hebrew letters on the sides. In my family, we follow many of those traditions, but we have some of our own as well. Each night of Hanukkah, each person lights a menorah. Another tradition that we have done is a Yankee Swap: all of our friends and family are invited, and it is a lot of fun. Despite these separate traditions, we do follow all of the classic ones; as mentioned above, we light menorahs, make latkes, and eat jelly doughnuts. The common Hanukkah tradition of giving gifts was never mentioned by Judas–that custom was implemented based on the Christmas ritual, and it is now part of nearly every Hanukkah celebration, including ours. Despite being considered a minor Jewish holiday, Hanukkah is always very fun, and everyone always enjoys seeing friends and family and eating good food.