The festival of the Hanukkah is one of the most popular and joyous of the Jewish festivals. It commemorates the rededication of the Temple in 164 BC, after the armies of Judas Maccabaeus (the “Hammer”) had routed the forces of Antiochus IV. On that occasion, there was a miraculous relighting of the perpetual light in the Temple in Jerusalem. The ritual oil that kept the light burning had run out and only enough was left for one day. However, miraculously, the light kept burning for eight days.
To commemorate that event, candles are lit in synagogues and homes. The menorah is the special candelabrum used for this ritual. One candle is lit every night in each of the seven nights of the festival. While the Hanukkah lights are burning parties are held, games are played, gifts are exchanged and various other entertainments and plays are featured. This is as close to Christmas as the Jewish faith gets! Tradition limits work only during the time that the Hanukkah candles are lit.
The Hanukkah celebration revolves around the kindling of a nine-branched menorah, known in Hebrew as the hanukiah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown; the ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others. Jews typically recite blessings during this ritual and display the menorah prominently in a window as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.
In another allusion to the Hanukkah miracle, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil. Potato pancakes (known as latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are particularly popular in many Jewish households. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts. In recent decades, particularly in North America, Hanukkah has exploded into a major commercial phenomenon, largely because it falls near or overlaps with Christmas. From a religious perspective, however, it remains a relatively minor holiday that places no restrictions on working, attending school or other activities.
Hanukkah in 2015 started on Monday, the 7th of December and will continue for 8 days until Monday, the 14th of December. Note that in the Jewish calendar, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day, so observing Jews began to celebrate Hanukkah on the sunset of Sunday, the 6th of December.