Did you know that the fun, celebratory winter festival of Hanukkah commemorates an ancient military victory? The historical story centers on the Maccabees, a band of fighters from a priestly family trying to preserve and reclaim a certain Jewish way of life. We celebrate the dedication of a small group of Maccabees, who defeated the powerful army of the Syrian Greek empire and cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been taken over. Hanukkah actually translates to “dedication.”
The telling of the story often ends there, but it’s actually more complicated than that. The Maccabees weren’t just fighting the Syrian-Greek army; they were also railing against other Jews who had become assimilated into the dominant culture’s way of life. In the current day, the Maccabees would be considered radicals or fanatics. The Maccabees, who won, were against Jews participating in the culture around them. It’s a pretty complicated message for modern Jews, including those of us who are figuring out how to incorporate Hanukkah celebrations into our lives along with other religious traditions.
Despite its historical complexities, focusing on the story of the Maccabees and their tiny army defeating the army of the giant Syrian-Greek Empire is a way to celebrate the triumph of the weak over the mighty, the light over the darkness, and the success of the underdog.
If we focus instead on the drama of the infighting among the Jews, we can take a different set of lessons with us about respect for difference, the need to understand other cultures, and an acceptance that traditions and priorities shift within cultures over time.
Several centuries after the Maccabees’ victory, a group of rabbis decided the holiday needed another focus—in part, to take the focus off the Jewish civil war parts of the story. So they created a legend to make the holiday both more religious and miraculous. After the Maccabees drove the Greek army out of the Temple, according to the story, they decided to clean up and rededicate the Temple. They lit a menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum inside the Temple with enough pure oil to keep it lit for one day. It would take eight days to travel and bring back more untainted oil. Miraculously, that bit of oil kept the menorah burning for eight days until they returned. To remember and commemorate this part of the story, we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days and light candles each night.
Hanukkah is a relatively recent development compared to other Jewish holidays. It’s considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar and doesn’t have any of the same restrictions or traditions as holidays that are mentioned in the Torah. In contemporary life, this winter festival has gained popularity because of its proximity to Christmas and to other cultures’ winter festivals.
Hanukkah wasn’t traditionally a big gift-giving holiday either. Kids often got “gelt” (which means money in Yiddish): coins or small gifts of money from family members. In the mid-20th century, a lot of American Jewish families got in the habit of giving gifts to help their Jewish kids fit in during Christmas time. Lately, some families are pushing back against consumerism by giving fewer gifts or by opting for experiences instead of objects. Some communities have designated the fifth night of Hanukkah (the first night when a majority of candles are lit) specifically for giving to others, volunteering or making donations.
Hanukkah has become more integrated into American pop culture in the past couple of decades, too. Adam Sandler first played his famous Hanukkah song on Saturday Night Live in 1994. Since 2001, there has been an annual Hanukkah party hosted by the White House, and is attended by many prominent members of American society. The Maccabeats (an American Orthodox Jewish all-male acapella group) first released their Hanukkah parody, “Candlelight,” in 2010, and it reached No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Comedy Digital Tracks chart and has more than 15 million views on YouTube. Though Judah Maccabee and his army hoped to preserve their idea of what Judaism should look like, in the 21st century, our celebrations and ideas about Hanukkah have not stopped evolving.
Like all Jewish holidays, Hanukkah starts at sundown. Due to the story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, the holiday lasts for eight days. It starts on the 25th of the Hebrew month called Kislev, which is the same date as Christmas, so it’s easy to remember! Apart from that, the two holidays are not connected aside from both taking place close to each other. As well as sometimes overlapping at a time when the days are shortest and light is in short supply. The date of Hanukkah on the American calendar changes each year, usually starting anywhere from late November to late December.
The Jews during the original Hanukkah story already knew that the surrounding culture had a holiday on the 25th of their month, Saturnalia. So there’s good evidence that is where the date of Hanukkah came from. No matter how we try to stay separate, many cultures and their traditions are intertwined! Still, the stories of Hanukkah and Christmas and the religious aspects of the beliefs are not connected.
Many other cultures also have festivals of light around this time of year for similar reasons as Hanukkah, Christmas, and the Winter Solstice: to bring light into the darkness of winter.
Find key information about Hanukkah in this fun infographic.