Chanukkah is an eight day festival to commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Syrian army (sometimes wrongly referred to as Greeks) in the year 165 BCE. After a three year battle against their ruler, Antiochus, who had taken over the city of Jerusalem and defiled the Temple there, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, recaptured the city, then purified and rededicated the Temple. They then celebrated a belated Sukkot festival (8 days), and lit lamps every night. Several centuries later, a Babylonian rabbi wrote a story in the Talmud about the oil in the special Temple lamp, the menorah, having lasted for eight days to symbolise the faith of the Maccabees and their followers.
Chanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, which falls in December, often close to Christmas.
Candles are placed in a special nine-branched candleholder (technically named a chanukkiyah, but often referred to as a menorah) – one candle as the ‘servant’ (shamash) to light the others, and one additional candle to represent each day, beginning with one on the first night and rising to eight on the final night of the festival, when all nine candles are illuminated. This is often accompanied by the giving of gifts – especially among those families who seek to use Chanukkah as a means of combating the influence of Christmas.
There are no specific Liberal customs, save that we try to downplay the story about the ‘miracle’ of the oil, directing our congregants to the historically accurate version of the story.
Because of the pervasiveness of the story of the oil, the eating of foods fried in oil has become a feature of Chanukkah. These take the form of doughnuts and latkes (potato pancakes). Another element is the giving of chocolate coins, perhaps a reminder of ‘Chanukkah gelt’ (Yiddish for ‘money’) that was given at this time.