Hanukkah represents the Jewish fight for freedom. Around 175 BCE (before the Christian era), Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, tried to wipe out Jewish religion by forbidding observance of Jewish rituals.
He sent troops to Jerusalem to desecrate the holy temple by installing idols, sacrificing a pig at the altar and sprinkling the blood on sacred items. Jews who took sanctuary in the temple were forced into slavery.
But in the small village of Modi'in, a man named Mattathias couldn't stand to see one of Antiochus' officers desecrate a Jewish altar. Mattathias stabbed the soldier and fled with his five sons, including Judah Maccabee, and a band of followers into the hills above Jerusalem, where they became guerrillas.
After a final battle at Emmaus, on the road to Jerusalem, the Maccabees vanquished the Syrian forces and joyfully marched into a ravaged Jerusalem. In the temple, they found the sacred Torah scrolls torn and scattered.
After cleaning the temple, the Jews wanted to relight the temple's official seven-branched menorah, but could find only one tiny flask of oil. Legend has it that there was only enough to burn one day, but by a miracle, it burned for eight days. Today, a candle is lighted each night for eight nights.
Although there are no separate religious services for Hanukkah, special prayers are said in synagogues during this time and the festive occasion is marked by songs, food and gift giving.
When the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem and relighted the menorah, they issued new coins to commemorate the occasion and to show they were free people. Today, children often receive Hanukkah gelt--which can be real money or gold foil-wrapped chocolates that look like the ancient coins.
A popular Hanukkah game is to spin the dreidel, a four-sided top. Four Hebrew letters on the sides of the top stand for the words nes gadol hayah sham, which mean "a great miracle happened there."
According to legend, the top was created during Antiochus' reign so that when Jewish people gathered to study the forbidden Torah, they could pretend to be playing a game when the soldiers came.
The holiday is also known as the Festival of Lights because of the lighting of the candles.