Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving this year, something it hasn't done since 1888 and won't do again for another 79,043 years! Yeah, you read that right. All Jewish holidays are based on a lunar calendar and that's why I complain every year to grocery store managers that there are no Hanukkah candles because the holidays change dates every year based on the phases of the moon. You know how Easter is a different weekend every year, right? It follows Passover (According to the Roman Catholic Church, Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox, which is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (new moon). Passover begins on the 15th day of Nisan, which is the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. It ends on the 21st of Nisan in Israel (and for Reform Jews) and on the 22nd of Nisan elsewhere else. Since Hebrew days begin and end at sundown, Passover begins at sundown on the preceding day.) Got it?
But we aren't really discussing current holidays but past ones. Medieval Hanukkah.
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights that rolled around usually at the same time as Christmas. Yet it is a holiday with many meanings and expresses many events at once. The medieval Jew embraced it: the idea of the smaller army of Jews rising up to conquer their Gentile oppressors was irresistible. Always a popular theme with Jews in Europe when they were ousted from so many places as they had been in the Holy Land. They related. Given that this is a holiday with no biblical source (the Books of Maccabees where at least part of the Hanukkah celebrations can be found, are listed in Christian bibles, which are apocryphal to Jews and not considered part of the canon), there was a clash between those rabbis who followed oral rabbinic traditions and those that were strictly biblical. (The same clash occurs between Protestants and Catholics regarding traditions with a small "t" and Traditions with a large "T". In the Last Supper, for instance, where the gospels say that Jesus is reclining at table is a perfect example of the importance of following tradition with a small "t". Biblical commandments in Exodus have God exhorting Moses to instruct the people to eat their Passover standing up as a people in flight, ready to high-tail it when the time is right. But sometime between the time of Moses and the time of Jesus, Jewish tradition changed to the partaking of the Passover in a reclining position. As it says in the Haggadah [the prayer book used during the Passover Seder] the Egyptian Hebrews stood to eat just as a slave stands to eat in the presence of his master. But to recline is to exclaim one's freedom. Thus Jesus, as a good Jewish boy, follows Jewish tradition rather than God's biblical command.)
The source for Hanukkah, or the Dedicating of the Temple, comes from something called the Megillit Antiochus or the Scroll of Antioch, dating from somewhere between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD. The Books of Maccabees talks about a re-dedication of the Temple by Judah Maccabee, his brothers, and his army, but never specifically mentions a miracle, only that the celebration should last for eight days, which, indeed, most Jewish holidays do. (In Jewish numerology, Seven is the perfect number: seven days of creation. But the number eight--God--is beyond perfect. Eight days old a boy is circumcised and brought into the covenant. Eight days for most Jewish celebrations.) It is this scroll that gives us the story of the miracle of the oil. The Story: Around 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes King of Greek Syria and other places, ruled over the Jews and outlawed Judaism, ordering a statue of Zeus to be erected in the temple. The Maccabees revolted, won, and worked to reconsecrate the Temple, getting all that nasty Gentile stuff out of there, building a new altar, etc. In order for the re-dedication to be complete, the menorah or candelabrum or multi-burning oil lamp was to burn for seven nights, but there was only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day and there was no time to get more. But it miraculously burned for eight days. Thus the eight day celebration.
In the Middle Ages, the Megillit Antiochus was read aloud in synagogues much as Purim was celebrated, another rabbinically declared holiday and another tale about Jews rising up against their oppressors. Jews reenacted the lighting of a menorah in the synagogues as well as in their homes. The proper way to light a menorah is to have it in a doorway. Not quite practical, so the next best thing is to have it in a window, fulfilling the rabbis decree to show the miracle to the world (which is why there are all those public displays of menorah lighting. It is NOT the Jewish answer to a public lighting of a Christmas tree. If anything, it's the other way around.)
Though for all that, Hanukkah was never a huge holiday. It was just one of many. Certainly not a High Holy Day like Rosh Hashonnah (Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). It was another reminder to Jews of God's miracles and His dedication to the Chosen People no matter where they found themselves and under what circumstances. The tradition of giving a gift for each day of the holiday is more a reflection of their Christian neighbors during a gift-giving season than part of any older tradition. The Eastern European tradition of eating foods cooked in oil, however, can be more gratifying if not cholesterol building. Because it is a feast of oil burning, foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and donuts are part of the fare. Can't knock that. Playing the dreidel is supposed to be a reflection of a game that the Maccabees played while waiting to attack their enemies. It's like dice. It's a gambling game.
Incidentally, you haven't miscounted when you see a menorah and wonder why it has nine places for candles instead of only eight. The center place is for the shamash or helper candle. It merely lights the other ones.
So next time you see a menorah and hear about Hanukkah, don't do what my Christian contemporaries did when I was a child (and still hear on occasion); don't compliment the Jew on "their Christmas". After all, we had it first. Appreciate it on its own level, its ancient and varied traditions.
And have a latke. They're very tasty.