Hanukkah, the archetypal celebration of religious freedom, starts its eight days at sundown today (Nov. 27). Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication, recalls a victory of the ancient Jews over a pagan king who tried to force them to give up their faith.
The founding events took place in the second century B.C.E., when what is now Israel was ruled by the Greco-Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In a ruthless effort to destroy Judaism, the king set up a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. He also poured the blood of a pig — an animal considered unclean in Judaism — over the Torah scroll in the Temple.
Finally, five brothers arose — adopting the name Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for "hammer" — and led a revolt. Despite the superior military machine of Antiochus, they won and set about to cleanse the Temple.
To their dismay, the victors found only one day's worth of oil for the Great Menorah at the Temple. But according to the story, the lamp miraculously burned for eight nights, enough to purify a new supply of oil.
Modern Jewish families celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a special eight-branched menorah, called a hanukkiah. One candle (or lamp) is lighted every night, giving the holiday its popular nickname, the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah's closeness to Christmas most years cause American Jewish families to lift it above its place as a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. They often hold Hanukkah parties, buy beautiful hanukkiot and give their children one gift each night. Synagogues and Jewish federations often hold outdoor lightings on large lamps as well.