Hanukkah comemmorates the purification and rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus on Kislev 25, 165 BC (roughly December). Three years before, Antiochus IV, the Seleucid (Syrian) king, insulted the Temple by erecting an idol to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on the alta. Some of the coins he minted had his features on the face of Zeus along with the words “Theus Epiphanes” meaning “the god
manifest.” False worship was out of the questions for Jews of strict faith.
Antiochus continued to decree that Torah could not be studied under
penalty of death, circumcision was forbidden and the Sabbath, and the Jewish day of rest, wasn’t to be followed. This brought an internal struggle within Judaism
out in the open finally. There were the observant Jews who
wanted to keep Torah. However, there were also the Hellenized Jews who wanted to assimilate into the Greek culture around them and become forms of “born again” Greeks.1
According to the Torah, Antiochus sent troops across villages with
a statue of himself ordering people to bow down to it, including Jews, who
refuse to acknowledge different idols. One day they arrived in the village of
Modi’im. An elderly man stepped forward to comply with the order. But, an observant Jewish leader, Mattathias of the Hasmonean family, thrust this commander with a spear and also killed one of the Seleucid soldiers. This began the Maccabean revolt where Mattathias and his five sons, including the infamous Judah (or Judas) Maccabee and others fled into the Gophna Hills. For three years, revolt against the Seleucid soldiers ensued. Finally, Jerusalem was liberated, along with the temple.
It is this taking back of the Temple which marks a powerful moment in the history of the Jewish people and their proud struggle to practice their religion.
According to the old testament, Rabbis recount the miracle of Hanukkah as thus:
“On Kislev 25 begin the Hanukka days, eight of them…When the Greeks
entered the Temple Sanctuary, they contaminated all the oil. When the
Hasmoneans defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil bearing
the High Priest’s seal. The miracle goes as thus: Hiding soldiers only had enough oil for one day’s burning, but a miracle came to pass and it lasted eight days. The following year, 163 BCE, these days were declared a holiday to be celebrated with the saying of Hallel and thanksgiving prayers.” (Megillat Taanit) This is the reason they light one additional candle each night on their candelabrum. (Menorah)
Though Hanukkah is not considered a High Holiday, or Major Holiday, in the Jewish religion, it still contributes significant meaning. Unlike Yom Kippur or Rosh Hoshana, days of observance and civil days off from school in which Jews are required to rest, Hanukkah is more of a fun holiday which illustrates the survival of the Jewish people. 2
Symbols like the candle light is significant, granting the idea of light overcoming darkness. The oil, as well, contributes to many Hanukkah traditions.
It is believed that Hanukkah, being a minor holiday, evolved in order for Jewish families to make sure their children didn’t feel “left out” when Christmas approached. As early as the medieval ages, coins and chocolate were given to Jewish children for the holiday; it was nothing especially special centuries ago.3
2. Beit-Heiiahmi, B. (1976-77). Sacrifice, Fire, and the Victory of the Sun: A Search for the Origins of Hanukkah Psychoanaysisl. Rev., 63:497-509.