The Jewish festival of lights, called Hanukkah, is celebrated around the world today. But the inspiration for the holiday dates back thousands of years in what is today the country of Israel.
In 175 B.C., King Antiochus, whose ancient kingdom included Judea (located in present-day Israel), made it against the law for people who lived there to practice their religion, called Judaism. Instead, he wanted Jews to worship Greek gods. When they refused, he ordered his troops to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem, an important place of worship for Jews. He replaced the Jewish symbols with an altar dedicated to Zeus, the king of the Greek gods.
The Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, rebelled against King Antiochus. Many historians believe that they battled for about three years to become an independent region so they could practice their religion. Finally, around 164 B.C., the Maccabees, as they were called, defeated King Antiochus and his troops.
When the Maccabees returned to their ransacked temple, they found only one jar of oil—just enough to light the temple’s candles for one day. But according to the Talmud (one of Judaism’s holy texts), the oil miraculously burned for eight days—enough time for the victorious Maccabees to find more oil for their sacred candles.
Restoring the temple and driving out King Antiochus didn’t end the conflict. His followers continued to battle with the Jews for more than 22 years. Finally, in the year 142, the warring groups signed a peace treaty, and the Jews formed their own independent region.
How it’s celebrated today
Hanukkah starts on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar. (It’s also called the Jewish calendar and is used to track religious dates.) Because this calendar follows the lunar (or moon) cycle, the holiday begins on a different date each year on the calendar you use the most, which is based on the sun cycles. Usually, Hanukkah starts in late November to mid-December.
In 2022, Hanukkah starts the evening of December 18 and ends on December 26.
To celebrate the ancient miracle of the oil burning a candle for eight nights, Jews celebrating Hanukkah light a candleholder called a menorah for eight nights. The menorah holds nine candles—one for each night plus a candle called the shamash used to light the other candles.
On the first night, one candle is added to the menorah and lit. On the second night, another candle is added and lit. The adding and lighting of candles continues for eight nights. During these moments, people recite special blessings and prayers, sing songs, and exchange gifts to celebrate the miracle in the temple more than 2,000 years ago.
Hanukkah foods and fun
Traditional Hanukkah foods include deep-fried jelly donuts called sufganiyot and potato pancakes called latkes. Both dishes are fried and represent the long-lasting lamp oil.
After they’ve feasted on rich goods, families gather to take turns spinning a top called a dreidel. Players can win chocolate gelt, or coins, if the top lands the right way.