The festival of Chanukah is celebrated for eight days each year, beginning in the Jewish month of Kislev.
The story of Chanukah takes place in the second century BCE, when Israel was occupied by the Seleucid (Syrian) Empire. The Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes had outlawed many Jewish practices including circumcision.
He vandalised the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and ordered pigs to be sacrificed to the Greek gods on the Temple alter. Antiochus wanted to forceJews to become more similar to the Greeks, and so many aspects of Jewish observance were outlawed on pain of death, making it nearly impossible for Jews to publicly practice their religion.
A rebellion against Antiochus IV was launched by the Hasmonean family, also known as the Maccabees. The revolt was initially led by the Priest Mattathias and then by his son Judah after his death.
Although the Maccabees were vastly outnumbered by the Syrian forces, by the year 165 BCE they succeeded in defeating Antiochus and recovering the Jewish Temple. This improbable military victory is regarded as the first miracle of the Chanukah story.
The holy artifacts of the Temple that had been damaged or stolen were replaced by the Maccabees, including the Menorah. The Menorah was a seven-branched candelabrum that was lit each day and had to burn throughout the night.
The oil needed to light the Menorah had to be totally pure olive oil, certified with the seal of the High Priest. However, only a small sample of this oil could be found – enough oil to burn for just one day.
According to Jewish tradition, this oil burned in the Menorah for eight full days, which was enough time for more oil to be produced. This is the second miracle commemorated on Chanukah.
There is a Jewish practice to light candles in a Chanukiah on Chanukah. The Chanukah candles are lit by a street-facing window so they can be seen from outside, since the purpose of the Chanukah lights is to publicise the miracle of the festival.
To fulfill the obligation of lighting the candles only one candle needs to be lit on each night. However, there is a widely accepted custom to light an extra candle every night, so that eight candles are lit on the final night.
Unlike the Menorah, the Chanukiah used on Chanukah by Jews today has eight main branches, and an additional ninth branch which is set on a different level to the other candles. This branch is known as the Shamash, and is used to light the other candles.
Last year, Prime Minister David Cameron hosted a reception for the Jewish celebration of Chanukah with chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, at Downing Street in London.
Many windows of London homes will be lit up with Menorahs today to allow people passing by to see the traditional lights.
Foods commonly eaten on Chanukah include doughnuts, and potato pancakes fried on oil called latkes. These oil-fried foods again commemorate the miracle of the Menorah.
There is also a custom to play with a four sided spinning-top on Chanukah known as a dreidel. Traditional texts explain that when Syrian guards invaded Jewish homes to ensure Jewish people were not studying sacred texts, the Jews would quickly substitute their books for toys and games to avoid suspicion.
The four letters printed on the sides of the dreidel form an acronym for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham – ‘a great miracle happened there.’
The public lighting of Chanukah candles and the story of the dreidel remind one not to take freedom of religious observance for granted, and to be grateful that our society embraces religious diversity and celebrates new cultures and ideas.