There are so many great memories from my childhood at this time of year: arranging the candles just right on the Menorah (or Hanukiah), playing a game with a dreidel, eating potato latkes, watching Mom scurry off to wrap a little gift, blessing the candles, and thinking about the miracle that we celebrated. Yes, a miracle happened, long, long ago.
Almost 200 years before Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, the Jewish state of Syria, which was once part of Alexander the Great's empire, fell under the rule of a wicked king named Antiochus, of questionable sanity. He hated the Jews and when they would not worship the idols of the Greeks, he defiled their Holy Temple, finally leaving it in shambles. The Jewish women and children were captured and sold as slaves. Pigs (non-kosher animals) were sacrificed upon the altars. This desecration continued until a man named Mattathias in the village of Modi'in could stand it no more.
Mattathias slew the officer who had sacrificed a piglet upon the altar in the marketplace of his village. The first cry for freedom was heard! Mattathias quickly summoned his five sons, Judah Maccabee, Jonathan, Johanan, Eleazar, and Simon, and quickly fled the village. These stalwart fighters defeated four of King Antiochus' armies and kept on fighting, and winning. Judah Maccabee led the final battle in the town of Emmaus. Victory! And a return to Jerusalem and the devastation that lay there.
The Maccabee fighters found the Holy Temple in ruins. They scrubbed and restored it, and on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, in 165 B.C.E. the Temple was rededicated with the single flask of holy oil that was found to light the great Menorah. Here's the miracle part. The oil was only enough to burn for one day, but it said to have lasted for eight days! And so, Jews around the world each year celebrate eight days of Hanukkah. Each evening, one more candle is added to the Hanukiah (or Menorah), until all nine candles are lit.
Nine, you ask? Yes, one candle is the servant or guard and lights all the others each night. Children receive a small gift after the candles are lit and blessed. They play a game with a 4-sided top known as a dreidel for chocolate coins, known as "Hanukkah gelt." The Hebrew letters on the dreidel stand for "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham," or "a great miracle happened there." And so it did!