Hanukkah 2019: What Is Hanukkah And Why Is It Celebrated?

People are preparing to light their menorahs for the first time Sunday night, making it the perfect opportunity to curl up with, as Adam Sandler sings, a "gin and tonic-ah" and learn about Hanukkah.

Sunday marks the first night of the holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights. For the next eight days, Jewish people will gather with friends and family to light their menorahs and remember a miracle that God performed thousands of years earlier.

When Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled Judea, the land known today as Israel, he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered everyone to worship Greek gods. After his soldiers marched into Jerusalem, they desecrated the Second Temple and erected an idol.

To fight back against the oppression, a group of people known as the Maccabees banded together. Led by Judah, the son of Mattathias, a local leader in Modi'in, they were successful in their revolt against the king's much more powerful army and reclaimed Jerusalem.

When the Maccabees returned to the destroyed temple, Judah ordered it to be rebuilt and for the menorah to be lit once again. Despite having untainted oil to light the menorah for only one night, they lit it anyway. Miraculously, the menorah remained lit for eight days.

hanukkah what is it why it's celebrated
Someone reaches for an appetizer at a Hanukkah party in Philadelphia on December 31, 2014. Lisa J Goodman/Getty

Now, Hanukkah serves as a reminder of God's miracle and the Maccabees' victory over their oppressors, despite the enormous odds against them. Starting on Sunday, people will light their menorahs, adding one additional candle for each subsequent night until all eight are burning on the last night of Hanukkah. Along with lighting the menorah, which is usually placed in a window or a spot in the home where it can be observed from outside, people often eat latkes, potato pancakes they fry in oil, reminiscent of the oil that burned for eight days.

It's also customary for families, especially those with young children, to play a game of dreidel. The dreidel, a spinning top, has a different symbol on each of its four sides. Each player has equal game pieces, often pieces of chocolate gelt or coins, and takes a turn at spinning the dreidel. Once the dreidel lands, they follow the instructions aligned with the side that's facing up, like so:

  • Nun: Player does nothing
  • Gimel: Player takes everything in the pot
  • Hey: Player takes half the pot
  • Shin: Player adds a game piece to the pot

The Jewish calendar follows a lunar cycle, not a solar cycle, as the Gregorian calendar does. Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, but the exact date changes each year. This year, it starts on Sunday evening and concludes on December 30.