At sundown on Sunday, December 6th, millions of Jews around the world celebrated the first day of Hanukkah by lighting a candle and singing traditional songs. The eight day festival that is observed annually, starts on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar, which follows the lunar cycle. Hence, its exact date varies anywhere from late November to the end of December.
The folklore behind the popular festival dates back 2,200 years shortly after Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. Though he allowed the residents to continue observing their own religions and customs, his successor Alexander Antiochus IV was not as accommodating. The ruler abolished Judaism and even took over the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place for Jews at that time. The citizens revolted and after a three-year struggle managed to reclaim the Temple.
When they went into the Temple they found a small amount of oil, enough to light the Menorah for a day. At least that's what they thought. Instead, the oil lasted eight days, giving the residents sufficient time to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil to keep the candles burning. Soon after, an eight-day festival was declared to commemorate the miracle of the oil, and Hanukkah or Chanukah as it is also called, was born.
Though the celebration has evolved to include other fun traditions, lighting a sacred candelabrum that can hold nine-candles remains the most important ritual. Eight are lit one at a time to mark each day of the festival. The ninth candle, known as the Shamash (servant), is used to light the others.
The candle lighting is followed by prayers after which families settle down for a scrumptious meal. Since the festival of lights commemorates the holy oil in the temple, many of the traditional foods are deep fried. Among the favorites are fried potato pancakes or Latkes and Sufganiyot, a jelly donut cooked in oil.
After dinner, families gather around for some games. The most popular is one played with a four-sided spinning top or Dreidel. The multi-player game entails each participant to begin with an equal number of game pieces, which could be anything from candy to money. Depending on their spinning prowess they can either lose a few or all their pieces to a mutual pot or, hit the jackpot and earn everything that has been accumulated.
Though these traditions are fun, the best one of all, at least for kids, is that of receiving gifts from older members of the family. What's even cooler is that this Christmas-like tradition is observed all eight days of the festival!
Resources: history.com, huffingtonpost.com, bhg.com