How to explain Hanukkah to Gentiles
I am a Jewish person who celebrates Hanukkah even though I have trouble spelling it (Hannukah, Channuukkahh, Janucah, Hahnuckah). Some non-Jewish people might not understand the whole megillah as to why Hanukkah is celebrated.
Hanukkah is really just the celebration of a military victory and re-dedication of the Holy Temple around 167 BCE. (We say “Before the Common Era” instead of “Before Christ,” because we aren’t that focused on Christ.) The Holy Temple was seized by the Greek ruler Antiochus. He decreed that practicing Judaism was illegal and would be punishable by death. All Jews were forced to worship idols and eat swine, which were major no-no’s by Jewish doctrine.
In the village of Modiin, a group of soldiers came to enforce Antiochus’s law. One solider came up to a group of Jews and said something like, “Bow down to Zeus! Eat some of this pig flesh! Do it. C’mon, do it.” The high priest, Mattathias, just shook his head. One villager acquiesced, and started praying to an idol. Then, in what seems like a scene from a Western, the outraged Mattathias pulled out his blade and slaughtered him. Then he turned to the solider and killed him. Then with the help of his five sons he defeated the remaining soldiers. Mattathias’s posse (aka, the Maccabees) hid out in the hilly wilderness with other rebels.
After months of skirmishes, the Maccabees were able to oust the Greeks, and they returned to Jerusalem to find their temple desecrated by idols and the remnants of pig sacrifices. They needed to purify the temple by burning ritual oil in a Menorah for eight days. Unfortunately, they had only one day’s worth of oil…but by the work of a miracle the oil was able to burn for eight days!
The Hanukkah story is certainly not one of the High Holidays — it’s really not that important in the canon of Jewish holidays. It’s just kind of a cool action movie that showcases the value of self-determination accented with a miracle around oil that happens to occur around the same time as a very big Christian festival.
Hanukkah today ends up being a way for Jewish kids to not feel left out when the entire class is singing “White Christmas” or “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (songs coincidentally penned by Jews). Families celebrate by lighting the hannukiyah (a menorah / candelabra with space for nine candles) and eating oily dishes like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts.) Kids play dreidel (spinning top) to win gelt (chocolate wrapped in metal to look like coins). Some families give eight days’ worth of presents. My family usually gave me one really cool NES game, and a few gift certificates.
I appreciate that even though Hanukkah isn’t particularly that meaningful, it provides a reason for me to eat deep-fried food with my family.