The history of Hanukkah
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Hanukkah, also known as The Festival of Lights, is a Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days and nights. It starts on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, which falls between November and December on the Gregorian Calendar. This year, Hanukkah starts at sundown (as all Jewish holidays do) on December 20th.
The story of Hanukkah begins during the reign of Alexander the Great. When Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, he allowed the people under his control to observe their own religions.
A century later, however, Antiochus IV, a successor of Alexander, was in control of the region and began to oppress the Jews -- prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Led by the Maccabees, the Jews revolted, triumphed, and moved to rededicate the Temple.
The miracle of Hanukkah occurred when the Jews returned to the Temple. At the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left to light the menorah, which was supposed to burn throughout the night -- every night. While the oil they found was only enough to burn for one day, it burned for eight days -- the time needed to acquire a fresh supply. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate the miracle.
Today, Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days by lighting candles in a menorah each night.
Hanukkah is not actually a major religious holiday in the Jewish faith. The only religious observance is the lighting of the candles; and the menorah is the centerpiece of this ceremony. The menorah holds nine candles -- one for each night, plus a "shamash" used to light the others. On the first night of the holiday, one candle is placed at the far right of the menorah and lit (after prayers are recited) with the shamash. Each night, another candle is added, moving right to left.
Traditionally, dreidel (a gambling game) is played on Hanukkah. The dreidel is a square top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The letters stand for the phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham" (a great miracle happened there). They also tell you what happens when the dreidel lands on them! Nun (nit) means nothing happens. Gimmel (gantz) means you take everything. Heh (halb) means you get half. Shin (shtell) means you put one in. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, or small candies.
Because of the significance of oil to the holiday, it is traditional to eat fried foods on Hanukkah, The most popular being potato pancakes (or latkes).