What Is Hanukkah?

What is Hanukkah? Apart from the menorah, which people will light to represent the eight days in which the oil jar burnt, we can point to a number of common hallmarks of this holiday that people practice today.

Hope Bolinger
Menorah

Perhaps we have met a family of the Jewish faith or know a friend who belongs to the Messianic Jew denomination who celebrates Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights.

This Jewish holiday occurs a few weeks before Christmas, and like Christmas, does involve gift gifting. We may also have a familiarity with Hanukkah through symbols such as the dreidel or the menorah.

But unlike our holiday, which stems from the events that happened in the early first century or at the tail end of the BC, Hanukkah’s origins happened several hundred years before.

And Hanukkah starts in one of the most unlikely of events — an uprising.

In this article, we’ll dive into a brief history of the origin of Hanukkah, some common holiday traditions practiced today, and why it matters that we as Christians know about Hanukkah, or sometimes called Chanukah.

A Brief History of Hanukkah

The Jewish people have a history of global superpowers overtaking their nations and trying to force them to assimilate to practices that went against their culture and religion.

So, when Antiochus Epiphanes IV attempted to Hellenize the Jews in 168 BC, he met resistance from the Jewish people.

Some of Antiochus Epiphanes’ heinous acts included desecrating the temple by putting a statue of Zeus inside (Daniel 12), sacrificing a pig (an unclean animal by Jewish standards) on the temple altar, and abolishing Jewish practices such as Sabbath practice, Jewish holidays, and circumcision.

In other words, he tried to wipe out the Jewish identity.

Although the Israelites had seen foreign powers in the past such as Babylon or Persia try to have them incorporate foreign practices into their daily routine, they’d never witnessed anything this egregious or to this degree.

So, they rebelled.

The family of the Maccabees won two decisive battles against the Syrians (Antiochus Epiphanes IV) which led the Syrians to pull out of the holy land. Often this holiday tends to symbolize the Jews overcoming miraculous odds against a great and powerful enemy.

After the Syrians evacuated, the Maccabees took hold of the temple, cleansed it, and rededicated it.

Where the menorah comes in hails from a Babylonian Talmud account of during the events of the Maccabean revolt an oil jar burned for eight days straight, miraculous considering it probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a day.

For a more comprehensive history of the holiday, check out this article here.

Why Is Hanukkah Celebrated?

We should notice that all Jewish holidays have an illustrious history. You can point to just about every celebration in the Jewish calendar, and they can show you the historical origins of the event: biblical or apocryphal. In the case of Hanukkah, it falls into the latter category. Josephus and apocryphal books such as Maccabees talk about the origins of this holiday, mentioned above.

It's an important moment in Jewish history. Once again, they find themselves faced with an enemy far greater than their nation appears to be able to handle. With God on their side, they overthrow the oppressive rule of a foreign nation that attempts to blot out their traditions.

Because the holiday was instituted in 165 BC, we can know that perhaps even Jesus participated in some of these holiday festivities. They would've especially placed a heavy emphasis on this holiday during Jesus' day when thinking about the newest nation who had invaded Israel: Rome. Perhaps they wanted Jesus to be a Maccabees of sorts. A man who, against all odds, defeated the intrusive rule of Rome.

Of course, Jesus defeated a far great enemy than the physical entity of Rome. Instead, Jesus conquered sin and allowed us to come into an eternal relationship with him. Although those in Jesus' day had cause for celebration because their predecessors had overcome Hellenism, we have a massive reason to rejoice at the enemy in which Jesus vanquished.

Holiday Traditions of Hanukkah

Apart from the menorah, which people will light to represent the eight days in which the oil jar burnt, we can point to a number of common hallmarks of this holiday that people practice today. The Hanukkah menorah actually has nine branches, and this article dives into the why of that.

Families will recite blessings, and the story of the Maccabees (found in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees) will be read.

Those who celebrate may also spin a dreidel, adapted from a German gambling game from the 16th century. Apart from some Hebrew words that seem to translate to “A miracle happened here” this tradition doesn’t really seem to have firm roots in the original events of Hanukkah.

Some food consumed during this holiday includes jelly donuts, fried potato cakes (both fried in oil, to represent the oil of the candle), and dairy foods (which seems to somewhat stem from the apocryphal book of Judith on the origin of Hanukkah.).

Is Hanukkah like Christmas?

In some ways, the holidays do share some similarities. They fall during similar times of the year. Hanukkah takes place in early December and Christmas, on December 25. Both celebrate someone who lived amongst the Jewish people and conquered an enemy. And in modern contexts, both tend to have gift unwrapping as part of the festivities.

Apart from this, the two holidays don't share a ton of similarities. Although we do light candles in our Christmas Eve church services, the lights appear to represent different things. In the case of Hannukah, the light represented a miracle of the oil lasting for days beyond what was possible. The candles for Christmas Eve services, on the other hand, tend to symbolize Jesus as our light of the world. Through him, we find our purpose and the meaning of life. And because of his light, he guided us in the ways of how to be more like him.

There are people who practice both holidays, but an understanding of each can help to bridge gaps of misunderstandings and open up dialogues between those of different practicing faiths.

Why Should We Care about Hanukkah?

After all, unless we belong to a certain denomination, we may not believe that the book of the Maccabees belongs in the scriptural canon. So why should we care?

First of all, if we have friends in the Messianic Jew denomination, we can better understand the holiday that they likely celebrate at the beginning of December.

Secondly, we can understand why Jesus’ world had such an emphasis on zealous uprisings and revolts. Most likely the Jews had thought about their past and how the Maccabees had overcome a great foreign power, and they wanted to do the same to Rome,

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9).

When Jesus showed he didn’t come to divide and conquer the Romans, they grew furious and ended up crucifying him.

Finally, it shows God at work during the “silent years” of Scripture (about four hundred years before Christ’s arrival). He still found a way for the Maccabees to have victory over an evil, corrupt nation, which had tried to blot out the ways of the Jewish people.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/tomertu


headshot of author Hope BolingerHope Bolinger is an editor at Crosswalk.com, literary agent at C.Y.L.E., and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,000 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy released its first two installments with IlluminateYA, and the final one, Vision, releases in August of 2021. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in October of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.


This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

What Is Advent: Definition & Meaning Behind Christmas Tradition
What Is an Advent Wreath?
Christmas Eve History and Traditions
Why Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

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Originally published November 17, 2020.