It's time to celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights that lasts for eight days and nights. This year Hanukkah starts on Thursday, December 10, and ends Friday, December 18. The holiday's popularity has surged in modern times, but its origins date back to the turbulent centuries following the death of Alexander the Great, the ancient Macedonian leader who conquered the Persian Empire.
The origins of Hanukkah
After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., a power struggle broke out among his generals that lasted for more than century. The Greco-Syrian Seleucid kings would emerge victorious and rule many of Alexander’s former territories, including Judea (located in central, present-day Israel). The Seleucids exerted their influence through Hellenization, the spread of Greek art, architecture, and religion. Local communities, especially in Judea, resisted it. (See also: The plots and conspiracies that ended Alexander's empire.)
In 175 B.C. the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes came into power and tried to force Judeans to assimilate. The Seleucids captured the holy Temple of Jerusalem and defiled it by erecting an altar to the Greek god Zeus inside. Antiochus outlawed the Jewish faith and mandated the worship of Greek gods. Some scholars think he believed that establishing one common religion might unify his fractured empire, but his brutal methods undid those intentions.
Writing in the first century A.D., Jewish historian Josephus recorded the brutal plundering of Jerusalem and treatment of Jewish dissidents who were “whipped with rods, and their bodies torn to pieces, and were crucified, while they were still alive, and breathed. . . . And if there were any sacred book, or the law found, it was destroyed: and those with whom they were found miserably perished also.”
Horrified by the Temple desecration and cruelty toward the Jewish people, a priest named Mattathias and his sons rose up in rebellion. After Mattathias’s death in 166 B.C., his son Judah the Maccabee (the “Hammer”) took his father’s place in the fight and led the Jewish people in many victories over the Seleucids. In 164, Judah won back Jerusalem and restored the Temple, cleansing and rededicating it. The revolt of the Maccabees, as it came to be known, continued on and ultimately drove the Seleucids from Judea in 160.
Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” commemorates the miracle of light that occurred when Judah rededicated the Temple to the Hebrew god. According to the Talmud (one of Judaism’s holy texts), the Seleucids left only one intact vial of oil, just enough to light the Temple’s candelabrum for one day. But it burned for eight days—enough time for the victorious Judeans to secure more oil—and the miracle became the foundation of a beloved holiday to thank God and celebrate the victory of light over darkness.
How Hanukkah is celebrated
Although it is traditionally a fairly minor religious holiday, Hanukkah grew popular in the 20th century due to its proximity to Christmas. Hanukkah, writes Tatjana Lichtenstein, director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, “offered an opportunity for Jews to participate in the holiday celebrations complete with gift-giving and merry-making without giving up their distinct religious and cultural identities.” (Why Judaism’s holiest day is actually Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.)
Today Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev (the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar), which typically falls in late November to mid-December. For eight nights, candles are lit in a menorah, a candelabrum with spaces for nine candles—one for each night plus a “servant” candle called the shamash (shammes in Yiddish). On each successive night, one more candle is added and lit. During the lighting, people recite special blessings and prayers. Songs are sung, and gifts are exchanged to commemorate the miracle in the Temple more than 2,000 years ago.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to disrupt Hanukkah celebrations across the world as health officials discourage families and communities from gathering, but not even a pandemic can extinguish this festival dedicated to the miracle of light. Instead, much of the merriment will take place from a distance, from virtual menorah lightings to drive-thru reenactments of the Hanukkah story.
Amy Briggs is executive editor of National Geographic History magazine.