Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has several different legacies and meanings, which can be accentuated or played down, depending on one's religious convictions.
First and foremost, Hanukkah is a historical, nationalist holiday. It commemorates the successful rebellion, in the second century B.C.E., of a clan of Jewish freedom fighters called the Maccabees. These warriors rose up against Antiochus, a Greco-Syrian monarch who ruled Israel with a hard hand, banning Jews from practicing their faith and pressuring them to convert to a Hellenic way of life. (It is told that his soldiers would even force-feed Jews pork, a kosher no-no.) Despite being greatly outnumbered, the Maccabees managed to recapture the Holy Temple, the premier site of ancient Judaism, from their oppressors. Hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew -- the holiday pays tribute to the dedication of a group of Jews who believed fervently in their right to religious and nationalist freedom.
Of course, there's also a religious aspect to Hanukkah. Also known as the "Festival of Lights," Hanukkah celebrates the miracle that occurred when the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple. The sanctuary was a shambles, torn apart by the Hellenic forces. The fighters found only enough oil to light a lantern -- by which to read the Torah -- for one day. But the lantern blazed for eight full days. When Jews light the eight candles of the menorah on the eight nights of Hanukkah, they recite a prayer extolling God who "performed miracles for our ancestors in days of old."
There is also a seasonal, even pagan, aspect to Hanukkah. Celebrated on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, during the darkest days of the year, the candle-lighting holiday is a warm, cozy ritual to banish the winter blahs. The focus of the holiday is not so much going to synagogue or reading certain scriptures, but rather staying at home with friends and family, eating, playing, and just spending time together.
In the U.S., where Santa Claus rules the month of December, some Jews have incorporated a little bit of Christmas into their Hanukkah spirit. Some families opt to give gifts each night of Hanukkah; others may decorate their house with a "Hanukkah bush." Even though the two holidays have vastly different religious and historical origins and focus, both Christmas and Hanukkah are a beautiful opportunity to open up one's house and heart and spread some joy.
These five elements are part of traditional Hanukkah celebrations.
The centerpiece of the Hanukkah celebration is the hanukkiah or menorah, a candelabra that holds nine candles. Eight candles symbolize the number of days that the Temple lantern blazed; the ninth, the shamash, is a helper candle used to light the others. Families light one candle on the first day, two on the second (and so on) after sundown during the eight days of Hanukkah, while reciting prayers and singing songs. The menorah—either store-bought or homemade and crafted of metal, wood, papier mache, or clay—is filled from right to left, but lit left to right so each new candle is lit first.
Hanukkah -- one of the most family-oriented of Jewish holidays -- comes with its own set of carols sung around the glowing menorah. These celebrate everything from the glory of God and the ancient Temple of the Jews ("Maoz Tzur") to the simplicity of a dreidel, as in "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel/I made it out of clay/And when it's dry and ready/Dreidel I shall play." Check out the lyrics to this carol or learn a new one.
There's nothing low-fat about Hanukkah—the traditional foods of the holiday are deep-fried and caloric. In honor of the oil-y miracle at the center of Hanukkah—the story of the lamp in the Temple burning bright for eight days even though there was only enough fuel for one day—Jews eat oily foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganyot (jelly-filled doughnuts).
It's customary to play with dreidels (spinning tops) during the holiday, even wage gambling games in which players guess which side of the top will fall face up. Legend has it that during the Greek-Syrian dictatorship in Israel of yore, Jews got around the ban on reading the Torah by bringing spinning tops to study sessions so their oppressors would think they were just playing around. The Hebrew characters carved into the four sides of today's dreidels are the first letters of "Ness Gadol Haya Po/Sham," which roughly translates to "Great Miracle Happened Here/There" (depending on whether you're in Israel or not). Now dreidels can be used in Hanukkah gift wrap, as Hanukkah table decorations, and even as inspiration for this simple DIY Hanukkah garland.
The tradition of handing out gelt (the Yiddish word for "money") during Hanukkah probably dates back to 17th-century Poland. The practice is most likely a nod to the fact that the only time Jews were historically free to mint their own coins, in their own state, was after the Maccabean revolt, when the land around Jerusalem was governed by Jewish kings for over a century. The coins distributed during Hanukkah -- either real currency or chocolate-covered coins -- are thus a symbol of Jewish independence. They're also just a way to spread good cheer with things people can always use more of: cash and chocolate.