For many Jewish families, December is a challenging time of year. Hanukkah is a joyous Jewish holiday that falls during this time of year, yet from television commercials and holiday specials to every town's Main Street decorations and shopping mall Santas, society becomes saturated with the symbols of Christmas. How do Jewish families maintain their own customs and identities during this festive yet often confusing time?
Though Hanukkah is not a holy day like Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), it is indeed a holiday that Jewish families anticipate happily. Hanukkah recalls the military victory of the Jews (Maccabees) over their Syrian oppressors who had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 168 B.C. This holiday celebrates the ideals of freedom of belief and expression. The Jews fought the Syrians to be free to worship their own God and not the idols of the Syrian-Greek civilization that was dominant at the time.
Jews light candles on the menorah for each of Hanukkah's eight days (plus the shammash, which is used to light the other candles) because, as the story goes, the oil in the lamp that was found in the decimated Temple seemed only enough to burn for one night yet, miraculously, it burned for eight days. Thus, Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights. By the last night of Hanukkah, the menorah is lit with nine candles burning brightly.
Throughout Hanukkah, families play the dreidel game and eat traditional foods, such as potato latkes and applesauce. Most families exchange gifts, although in some families, only the children receive presents.