The Meaning of Hanukkah: The History and Significance of the Festival of Lights

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Hanukkah is coming the evening of Thursday, December 7, 2023! The Festival of Lights is a joyous time of year for the Jewish community and one of the most famous of their celebrations in the Western world. Aside from eight crazy nights of presents, however, many don't actually know the history of the holiday.

What is the history of Hanukkah?

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed Judaism in what was then the Seleucid Empire of Syria. Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, Judah, Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar and Jonathan, led a revolt against Antiochus. After Mattathias died, Judah became the leader of the revolt and known as "Yehuda HaMakabi," or "Judah the Hammer." The group would later be known as the Maccabees.

When the Maccabees successfully conquered their oppressors, they were determined to rededicate the Second Temple. As legend goes, they needed pure olive oil certified by a high priest (or "kohen gadol") for the Temple's menorah, which needed to burn throughout the night every night. They only had enough oil for one night in their flask, but the menorah remained lit for a full eight days until more Kosher oil became available. Jewish tradition honors this as a miracle with their annual Festival of Lights.

Related: Celebrate the Festival of Lights With the 25 Catchiest Hanukkah Songs

Is it spelled "Hanukkah" or "Chanukah?"

The spelling of "Hanukkah" vs. "Chanukah" is often debated, but it turns out, both are actually correct because it's a translation of a Hebrew term with no actual English counterpart. That said, "Hanukkah" is more commonly used.

What is the meaning of Hanukkah?

The name "Hanukkah" actually translates to "rededication" in Hebrew. The holiday honors not only the miracle of the menorah burning for eight days, but also of the Maccabees' revolution.

What is Hanukkah's connection to Sukkot?

According to The History Channel, some believe that the first celebration of Hanukkah was actually a belated Sukkot celebration, and they do have some similarities: Sukkot is a seven-day holiday that includes feasts and prayer. Learn more about Sukkot here.

What are some Hanukkah traditions?

Lighting the menorah

Lighting the menorah for Hanukkah honors the miracle of the rededication of the Second Temple. A new candle is lit for each night of Hanukkah using the center candle (in some menorah designs, often also the largest candle) called a shamash.

Related: 14 Movies to Watch While You Celebrate Hanukkah This Year

Playing with dreidels

While dreidels may just seem like a fun toy, they actually have some serious significance. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed Judaism, Jewish believers had to read the Talmud and study their religion in secret. If at risk of being caught studying Judaism, many Jewish people at that time would hide their books and whip out dreidels to give the impression that they were merely playing a game with their spinning tops.

What's more, dreidel games were also one of the only gambling activities permitted in Jewish tradition historically, and in some sects exclusively during Hanukkah celebrations. Each side of the dreidel has a letter corresponding to its action: "nun (take nothing)," "gimel (take everything)," "hei (take half)," and "shin (put one in)." It's often played with chocolate coins called "gelt."


Gelt are chocolate coins often given to children during Hanukkah and often used in dreidel games. It's historically linked back to the coins that the Maccabees distributed throughout their community after defeating Antiochus' regime and being granted the right to create their own currency.

Related: Chag Sameach! These Are the 12 Best Hanukkah Episodes to Watch as You Celebrate the Festival of Lights

Charitable giving

One of the most recurring and strongest things during the Hanukkah season is making the world brighter. Of course, the literal directive is done with the candles in the menorah, but it's often also interpreted as a time to simply make the world better. That's where charitable giving and gifts come in. The sixth night and its respective candle of Hanukkah is often deemed the candle of righteousness, or "Ner Shel Tzedakah," and is dedicated to giving back to and learning about social justice causes.

What are some popular Hanukkah foods?

In honoring the miracle of the oil, most traditional Hanukkah foods are prepared in oil. These include potato latkes, "keftes de prasas" (fried leek patties) and fried jelly doughnuts called "sufganiyot."

Next, check out these amazing DIY Hanukkah menorah and candles to brighten your Festival of Lights.