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Even though the dreidel and the Adam Sandler song have made Hanukkah into a festive holiday that is often poked fun at, the Jewish holiday's inception has a dark origin dating back thousands of years ago.
A war in 165 B.C. against the Jews and the Hellenist Syrians begins the story. The Greek king of Syria, Antiochus, had banned the Jews from partaking in their rituals, forcing them to worship the Greek gods. The Holy Temple had been taken and dedicated to the Greek god Zeus for his worship. Fueled by anger, the majority of the Jews made the decision to fight back.
War broke out in the small village outside of Jerusalem of Modiin, where the Jews were humiliated by Greek officers and soldiers. They were to bow down to idols and eat the flesh of a pig, both of which were abominations to the Jews. A high priest named Mattathias refused to take part, but a fellow villager stepped up to take his place. Enraged, Mattathias killed the villager and turned around and killed the Greek officer. He, along with his five sons and other villagers, attacked and killed the soldiers. Because of the massacre, Mattathias and his family sought refuge in the nearby mountains, and other Jews soon joined the cause to battle the Greeks.
After his father's death, Mattathias' son Judah took over the family-led regime. Nicknamed "Maccabee" or "the hammer" he and his soldiers battled against the Greek soldiers whenever given the chance. Upon their arrival at the Holy Temple in 164 B.C., they found the temple in poor condition, with many items broken and missing, defiled by warfare. One such item was the golden menorah, an eight branched candle holder. Inspired by sadness and victory, they cleaned up and repaired the Temple. At its completion, a big ceremony with a feast was called to rededicate the Temple. This is where the Jewish holiday became to be named, as the word "dedication" in Hebrew is called "Hanukkah". They wanted to light up the menorah as a celebration, but the oil flask they had only had enough oil for one night, or one candle. A miracle was in the works, however, as the oil spread out through eight days, keeping the menorah lit until more oil could be found.
Today's celebrants observe Hanukkah in a similar way. Each night, they light the menorah for eight days as a commemoration of the miracle with the oil. The first night of Hanukkah, two candles are placed, including a helper candle known as a shamash. Each night thereafter, one more candle is placed in the menorah. At the end of the holiday, the menorah is lit up completely celebrating the holiday also known as the Festival of Lights.
Other festive events that take place during Hanukkah today include games such as spinning the dreidel, which is a special Hebrew top with Hebrew letters on each side. Gifts are exchanged, namely coins, or gelt to the children. Also, traditional foods are enjoyed during the holiday. Most commonly known are potato latkes, or pancakes, and jelly donuts known as sufganiyot.
Because the Jewish calendar varies from the calendars we use today in the United States, the holiday will take place this year on Thursday, Dec. 2. However, celebrations will begin at sundown on the previous day. But no matter what day the celebration begins, the holiday of Hanukkah displays the strength shown by the Jews during turmoil of war of years past, leading to a restoration and dedication that resonates in the Jewish community today.