Festival of Lights – no somber celebrating here with a holiday titled this way, not when two miracles are commemorated. Eight days of celebrating, lighting of candles, foods fried in oil are all elements of the holiday you may be familiar with. Hanukkah means “dedication” or “rededication”.
The ancient Israelites were victorious over the Syrian Greek army of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 165 B.C.E. The Syrian Greek army tried to convert the people to paganism, even taking over the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and outlawing their practices. For some it may not have been a tough sell. But a group called the Maccabees stood up against their loss of religious freedom. They fought. On the 25th day of the month of Kislev, control over the Holy Temple was regained – one miracle, military triumph.
The Holy Temple was cleaned and the pagan idols removed. In a temple, an eternal flame must remain lit at all times. The story retold countless times is that when the eternal flame was ready to be lit again only one vial of pure oil was found and it would take eight days time to secure more pure oil. The candle was lit regardless of this challenge. The single vial of oil burned for eight days – second miracle, spiritual triumph. The Jews follow a lunar calendar and the Festival of Lights most often falls in December. In 2016, Hanukkah is celebrated December 24 through January 1, 2017.
Lighting the candles – the menorah holds nine candles. The “helper” candle called the shammash has a designated spot, often in the center. On the first night of Hanukkah, the shammash and one other candle are lit. On the second night, the shammash and two other candles are lit. From right to left, the candles are placed in the menorah and they are lit from left to right (after the shammash). On the eighth night, the menorah is fully filled with light. Ritual blessings are said each night.
Hanukkah’s other traditions involve gifts for children on each night, playing dreidel, singing certain songs, or eating ritual foods. Food definitely plays an important role in the Festival of Lights. To remember the spiritual triumph of the oil, often oily or fried foods are eaten, such as potato latkes, jelly doughnuts (Sufganiot), and olive oil cake.