Hanukkah (also called "Chanukah" and "Feast of Dedication") is a Jewish festival held yearly, usually in December. It celebrates the victory of the "Maccabees" when they drove out the Syrian Greeks in 165 B.C. Jewish independence was reestablished after three years of religious persecution by the Syrians.
While the Syrians occupied the sacred Temple of the Jews, they set up pagan altars and forced the people to sacrifice unclean animals to Greek gods. Soon a small army was organized in the hills; it was led by a group that became known as the "Maccabees." They fought for three years, finally pushing the Syrians out of the Jews' land.
Once freedom had been restored, the Maccabees' first act was to cleanse the Temple. All traces of the Syrians were removed. The "menorah" (eight-branched candleholder) which the Jews kept burning constantly, had been dark for the years of occupation. As part of the re-dedication ceremony, the menorah was to be lighted. A thorough search was made for holy oil to accomplish this. However, all that could be found was one "cruse" (a small jar or pot) that held only enough to keep the menorah burning for one day--unfortunately it would take eight days to make a new supply of oil.
The Maccabees lighted the menorah and said special prayers of thanks to God. According to legend, a miracle took place: a one-day supply of oil burned for eight days!
To remember the recapture of the Temple and the miracle of the oil, the Jews observe "Hanukkah." It is also known as the "Feast of Lights." The celebration lasts for a period of eight days, one for every day the oil burned.
Jewish families gather around their menorah on the nights of Hanukkah and light a candle. By the eighth night, all eight candles are burning. Special prayers are said over the lights, thanking God for the miracles. Special songs are sung, telling of the great wonders that happened to the Maccabees.
During the days of Hanukkah, children play gambling games using a top called a "dreidl" and supplies of raisins and almonds. Latkes (potato pancakes) are eaten, as are jelly-filled doughnuts called "savganiot."
Hanukkah is also a time for giving presents. Some parents give children one or two gifts for the entire holiday, while others give a different present for each of the eight nights.
In Israel where the "Festival of Lights" has a special meaning, a torch is lighted in Modiin (home of the Macabees) and carried by runners to the home of the president, many miles away.