Hanukkah is a minor eight day Jewish winter festival that commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greek army, and the subsequent miracle of rededicating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and restoring its menorah, or lamp. The word “Hanukkah” means “dedication.”
The most oft-told tale of the Hanukkah miracle is that once the Maccabees had thrown the Greeks and their idols out of the Temple and cleaned it all up, they only found one jar of oil for the Temple’s menorah. This jar had just enough oil to burn for one day, and yet it miraculously lasted for eight full days — giving the Jews enough time to produce the ritually-pure oil for the menorah.
Jews celebrate Hanukkah at home by lighting their own menorahs (also called hanukkiahs) which are meant to look like the menorah in the ancient Temple except that instead of seven branches they have nine (eight branches for each of the eight days the oil lasted plus one more in the center). On the first night, Jews light the middle branch and one candle on the far right, and then each succeeding night they add one additional candle until on all candles are lit on the eighth and final night. It is also traditional to play dreidel, a game with a spinning top with Hebrew letters. Some people also sing Hanukkah songs or exchange gifts. It is also traditional to give gelt — originally money, but these days usually foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Many people host and attend Hanukkah parties.
Many Hanukkah foods are deep-fried in oil, symbolizing the oil from the menorah used in the Temple. These include latkes (potato pancakes), and jelly doughnuts. Other favorites include the Sephardic delicacy bimuelos and, of course, applesauce and sour cream as a latke toppings.
Want to learn more? Read Nine Things You Didn’t Know About Hanukkah.