History of Hanukkah for Kids and Families

As winter approaches, the weather turns cold and darkness comes a little earlier each day. Sometimes, things feel a little dreary, but with the move to shorter days come holidays, with their family gatherings, special foods, and once-a-year rituals. Many different cultures and religions around the world celebrate holidays around the beginning of winter. For many people, these winter holidays bring feelings of warmth, hope, and light, even if the weather disagrees. 

Not only do these holidays mean special foods, traditions, and gatherings, they also each have their own history and stories to go with them. For millions of Jews around the world, early December means celebrating Hanukkah for eight nights. 

Hanukkah is Jewish holiday that has its own meaning and history. Judaism is a very old religion that started in the part of the world we now call the middle east. Jews believe in one god, just like Christians and Muslims. Judaism actually uses the same Bible as Christians,  though only the first part – the old testament,  which they call the Tanakh. They also have a special name for the first five books of the bible: the Torah. They don’t use the New Testament, which has the parts about Jesus. Jews celebrate their sabbath, or holy day, on Saturday. On that day, they might go to a worship service at a Synagogue,  and many avoid work and buying things. 

Even though it happens around the same time of year, Hanukkah is not a Jewish version of Christmas. Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christian savior, Jesus. Hanukkah celebrates a miracle that happened for the Jewish people over 2 thousand years ago. Even though the Jews believe in the old testament of the Bible, this story isn’t in the Bible. Even though it’s very old, it happened long after the stories told in the Torah. Let me tell you the story. 

A long time ago, in the middle of the second century BCE, the Jewish homeland, in what is now called Israel, was ruled by a Syrian-Greek power called the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids thought that Greek culture and customs were the best in the world. The king, Antiochus, made it illegal to practice the Jewish religion and customs. He put an altar to the Greek god Zeus in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, even though the Jews believed in only one God (and it wasn’t Zeus). He allowed his priests to sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods in the temple. The Jews believed that pigs are unclean. Jews could be punished very severely if they were caught practicing their religion. 

The Jews did not want to give up their religion or abandon their belief in one god. And they didn’t believe it was okay to pretend to follow the Greek gods, either. But they had to hide their religion. Jews would gather to pray and study the Torah in secret. If a Seleucid patrol passed by, they would quickly hide their books and pretend to play a game with a spinning top. 

King Antiochus began to send soldiers to all the villages in the area to make sure that the Jews were sacrificing to the Greek gods. When they reached a small town called Modi’in though, the Jewish priest there, Mattathias, refused to cooperate. He and his five sons fought off the soldiers and destroyed the pagan altar they’d set up. 

After that, Mattathias knew they’d be in trouble. He and his sons – John, Simon, Judah, Eliezer, and Jonathan – ran to the nearby hills to hide. 

But they weren’t done fighting for their right to practice their religion. The family returned with many other Jews who had fled persecution and started a revolt. Mattathias asked his son Simon, who was known for his wisdom, to guide the others in their decisions. He asked Judah, who was nicknamed “Maccabee”, which means “the hammer”, to lead the people into battle. Later, the whole family and their followers would also come to be known as the Maccabees.

The revolt lasted nearly 20 years. King Antiochus sent many armies to fight the rebels, but the Maccabees defeated every one, and eventually took back Jerusalem and their temple. For the Jewish people, Jerusalem is a special place, and the temple there was the most important one of all. Mattathias’ last living son, Simon, became the ruler of Judea. 

But the price of all the fighting was high. 

Even though they had taken back Jerusalem, the  temple had been nearly destroyed in the fighting. The temple lamp, called a menorah, had been stolen by the Seleucids. This lamp had seven branches, each with its own flame: one in the middle, higher than the rest, and three on either side of it. The temple menorah was made of gold, had beautiful decorations, and was supposedly as tall as a grown-up! 

The Jews cleaned up the temple, getting rid of the statues of the Greek gods. They built a new altar and a new menorah. They performed a special ceremony to rededicate the temple to their god. 

But it seemed their problems weren’t at an end. Priests were supposed to light the menorah lamps each morning, letting them burn all day and night, until the next morning. One candle from the previous day was always used to light all the others each morning, so the flame never went out completely. These flames were fed by the purest olive oil, but after all the fighting, there was only enough oil to light the lamp for one day. 

But then a miracle happened: the flames didn’t die out by the next morning. Instead, the oil lasted for 8 days! This gave the Jews enough time to make more oil, and ensured that the lamp wouldn’t go out again. More importantly, the miracle gave them hope that their god was still there, protecting them and caring for them. He had literally given them light in a very dark time. 

The priests decided that every year, the Jews would remember this miracle and their rededication of the temple by lighting candles for eight nights. The celebration starts on the 25th day of the month Kislev on the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, so it doesn’t always fall on the same day in the western calendar, but it’s between late November and mid-December.

So how is Hanukkah celebrated today?

The lighting of candles is probably still the most recognizable part of the celebration. Each night, for eight nights, families light candles on a menorah, one for each night. Usually, the oldest son in the family gets to light the menorah, and they say a blessing as they light the candles. So on the first night, you light one candle, the second night two, until the eighth night when all the candles are lit. 

If you’ve been paying really close attention, you might remember that I said the temple menorah had seven lamps on it, not eight. Good catch! On Hanukkah, a special menorah, called a Hanukkiah is used. A Hanukkiah actually has nine candles. Traditionally, one is higher than all the others. This is called the shamash candle, and it’s used to light the other candles each night. So each night, there’s actually one extra candle lit – the shamash.

Jewish families often place their menorahs in a window, showing that they won’t hide who they are, like they had to when they lived under Seleucid rule. In many cities throughout the world, you might also see giant menorahs set up in public places, lit with an extra lamp each night of Hanukkah.

But Hanukkah is more than lighting candles. Jewish families also gather together to reconnect and eat special meals. For Hanukkah, the tradition is to eat foods that are fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil lamp. People eat fried potato pancakes called latkes, often topped with sour cream or applesauce. They also eat delicious jelly donuts called sufganyot. 

Some families give small gifts to their children, though gifts aren’t a big part of Hanukkah like they are for Christmas. One traditional gift is chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil called gelt. 

The gelt are also used in a game called dreidel at Hanukkah. A dreidel is a spinning top with four sides. If you remember, the Jews would often pretend to be playing with a spinning top if a Syrian passed by while they were praying. The dreidel has four Hebrew letters on it: Nun, Gimel, Hay, and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew words “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”, which means “A great miracle happened there.” 

I won’t go into all the details, but players each put a token, or piece of gelt, into a central pile or “pot.” Then, they take turns spinning the dreidel. Depending on which letter is facing up when the dreidel falls, the player has to take a specific action. They might have to put another token in the pot, do nothing, take half the tokens, or all the tokens (or candy!) in the center pot.  

Hanukkah offers people a sense of hope and pride in their beliefs. Beliefs and traditions can keep people going in dark, troubling times. The story of Hanukkah helps Jews remember that they’ve gone through tough times, but they’ve survived and built new traditions while holding on to their beliefs and their culture.

Whatever holidays you celebrate at this time of year, or if you don’t celebrate any, I hope you can take a few minutes with someone you love to look at the light of candles, or Christmas lights, or even the stars, and feel the warmth of peace, hope, and love.