TRADITION: The holiday commemorates the victory over Syrian rulers by a band of Jews led by Judah Maccabee about 2,150 years ago. The Hellenized Syrian King Antiochus IV profaned the Jerusalem Temple by erecting an altar of sacrifice to the god Zeus. The Maccabees liberated the temple, then the focal point of Jewish worship. The Hanukkah festival also incorporates the legend of a lamp found at the rededicated temple that was thought to contain only one day’s worth of undefiled oil. Instead, the lamp burned for eight days.
OBSERVANCES: Also called the Festival of Lights, the holiday is celebrated primarily in homes. The eight-branched menorah is its principal symbol. Family members light one candle each night, using the flame from a ninth candle on the menorah. Children often receive small gifts spread out over the holiday period. Some Jewish leaders say that the holiday has grown in popularity, especially in the United States, because of its proximity to Christmas. Synagogue sermons tend to recall the Maccabean revolt as a classic example of the striving for religious freedom.