Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights, commemorates the recapture of Jerusalem and re-dedication of the Temple in 139 BCE after it was looted and desecrated by the Seleucid Greeks. The re-dedication followed a series of improbable military victories over larger and better equipped forces by a group called the Maccabees (Maccabee means “Hammer” in Hebrew).
Not only was G-d’s providence evident in the military sense, but when the temple was cleaned and the Menorah (seven-branched candelabra) remade, it was discovered that there was almost no oil available to burn for the lights; perhaps a day’s supply. In the great miracle of Chanukah, the lamps were lit and the oil lasted – eight full days until more was made available. These eight days are the reason for the length of the holiday, according to legend.
Today we celebrate each year in early winter by lighting a nine-branched menorah or “Chanukiyah”. One candle commemorates each day of the miracle and a ninth is called the “Shammash” meaning “helper” or “servant” – it is used to light the others. The Shammash also has a connotation of “teacher”, one who coaxes learning from a student in the way a flame is brought from wax.
More recently, other fun traditions have sprung up including giving gifts, playing games including “dreidl” or 4-sided top, and eating potato pancakes (“latkes”) fried in oil, of course!