The Festival of Lights: History and Celebration


BY Jasmine Williams

WEAKLEY COUNTY (December 4) – For many around this time of the year, Christmas is the holiday that many families are getting ready to celebrate. But for those in Weakley County who are not Christian and are Jewish, now is the time to celebrate hope with Hanukkah.

Hanukkah, or more traditionally-known as Chanukah, is observed during the month of December. Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights and means “to dedicate.” It begins on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. The holiday is observed for eight days and nights to remember the eight days that the candles burned in Jerusalem.

Because of Hanukkah’s placement of being in December, many think the holiday is just as important to Jews as Christmas is to Christians, but that isn’t the case. Other holidays, such as Passover, are far more scared to Judaism, but that should not decrease the meaning behind why Hanukkah is celebrated.

Many might not know the story of Hanukkah and the historical importance of it, of much about what the holiday means to those who celebrate, or why the holiday became so large in North America compared to other countries.

But the story of Hanukkah begins more than 2,000 years ago in 174 B.C. or 3586 in the Hebrew calendar.

In that year, Israel was controlled by the Syrian-Greek Empire and Antochus IV took reign. He was known to be a tyrant and wanted to unite his kingdom by forcing one religion and culture. He tried to suppress the Jewish people and force them away from their culture and ideology. He even got word of a rumor spreading through Jerusalem that he had died and people rebelled against their oppressors. Antochus was outraged with this and ordered his army to attack any Jewish person, killing many.

After this, Antochus became even harsher: forbidding Jewish worship, along with almost all Jewish customs and traditions under the penalty of death.

Antochus then sent Syrian officers into villages, one where Mattityahu, a priest, lived in. The Syrian officers built an alter in the village and demanded that Mattityahu go against his own religion, and give sacrifices to Greek gods. Mattityahu refused to go against his teachings, God and refused. Many Jews in the village fought the officers to defend their beliefs, took back the village, and destroyed the alter.

In fear of being put to death for fighting the officers, the priest Mattityahu and many other Jews ran and before his death Mattityahu asked his sons to defend the Torah which is the holy text for Judaism. One of his sons was known as Judah the Strong or “Maccabee” which comes from Hebrew meaning, “Who is like you, O God.”

Many who wanted to fight for Judaism and their culture began to call themselves the Maccabees after Judah. The Maccabees began to fight against the must larger army sent from Antiochus and win battles.

The Maccabees were able to win and go to Jerusalem to liberate the city. They removed idols from the city and made a new alter in 139 B.C. The Menorah that originally in Jerusalem, which was made from gold, was stolen and had to be made again with much cheaper metals. And before they could like it, they found a small amount of oil to light the candles, enough for one day. But the candles burned for eight days. The Jewish people took this as a sign that God was protecting them.

The celebration of Hanukkah has not changed for many years, with the lighting of the Menorah and some eating food that is cooked in oil. Some foods being potato pancakes or “latkes” and donuts or “sufganiyot.” But, one of the first major changes to the celebration came in the 1920s many Jews in North America begun to add gift giving to the yearly celebration.

It is a celebration, which focuses on giving thanks to the past year. Assistant Rabbi Jeremy Simons with Temple Israel in Memphis noted that the story of Hanukkah, “… [a] victory against a much more powerful adversary. It is also a story of hope during difficult times: each night we light an additional candle to bring more light into the world. This year's Chanukah will be unlike any most of us have experienced but the hopeful message is appropriate: we hope that our celebration next year will be with friends and family.”

He also went on to say that this year will not make celebrating Hanukkah much different as most celebration is done in the home with family. Rabbi Simons also said, “Our tradition teaches that the Chanukah Menorah should be put in a windowsill so it is visible to those outside our homes. It is an opportunity to be proud of being Jewish and literally put a little light into the world.”

Synagogues do not host special services for the holiday, but might have general social gatherings around this time that will not be held this year due to COVID. They also will not have any indoor events until it is safer for the community to do so. Temple Israel in Memphis will be hosting virtual candle lightings each day of Hanukkah with more information on the website at