Hanukkah is Judaism’s winter Festival of Lights, answering the darkness of the cold season with warm flames. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE and the rededication of the Jewish Temple to God — a dedication that was crowned by the lighting of the Temple’s menorah.
Today, several iconic Hanukkah traditions commemorate this historic moment. Here are three of the most important:
1. Lighting the menorah
The menorah was a seven-branched candelabra that lit the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It was lit only by specially, ritually-pure olive oil — olive oil that took more than a week to prepare. As legend has it, after the Maccabees drove the Greeks and their idols from the Temple, they cleaned and rededicated the space and managed to find but one cruse of this special oil, an amount that would traditionally have lit the menorah for just one day. But, miraculously, this one small jar of oil burned for eight whole days, allowing the menorah to remain alight until new oil could be prepared.
In commemoration of that miracle (and the victory of the Maccabees, of course), Jews light nine-branched menorahs (a menorah for Hanukkah is called a hanukkiah) for all eight days of the Hanukkah festival. They are traditionally placed in windows to be proudly visible to the wider world.
2. Eating latkes, jelly donuts, and other fried foods
Another way Jews commemorate the miracle of the oil is by eating fried foods. The two most traditional are latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts).
3. Playing dreidel
Before the Maccabees drove out the Greeks and rededicated the Temple, Jews were forbidden from worshipping their God or even studying Torah. But they studied their sacred texts anyway, and to hide what they were doing, would quickly put the books (then scrolls) away and take out little tops and pretend to be playing with them. In commemoration today Jews still play with little tops on Hanukkah. These dreidels are marked with four Hebrew letters which stand for the phrase nes gadol haya sham — a great miracle happened there. (Though in Israel, the letters spell out “a great miracle happened here.”)
What about giving presents?
Giving gifts is a relatively new Hanukkah tradition and not really one of the most important. Traditionally, Purim was the Jewish holiday for gift exchange. But as Christmas and the Christmas gift-exchange rose to prominence in American culture in the late nineteenth century, American Jews began to do the same as part of Hanukkah celebrations.