The first night of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah will begin tonight (16 December) at sundown, bringing the start of the eight-day "Festival of Lights". The holiday, also known as the "Feast of Dedication", will end on 24 December.
Observing the Jews' struggle for religious freedom, the word Hanukkah – or Chanukkah – means "rededication". The festival marks the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century BC, when the Israelites led by the Maccabees gained victory over the Greek-Syrian oppressors.
According to the Talmud, olive oil with the seal of the high priest was needed for the menorah (hanukkiyah), the nine-branched temple candelabra which was required to burn throughout the night every night. Although there was only enough oil for one day, the candles stayed alight for eight days – known as the miracle of the oil.
With food, games and gifts, the holiday is celebrated annually around the world.
Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting a nine-branched candelabra called a menorah, or a hanukkiyah. Eight of the branches represent the eight nights behind the holiday, while the last one – which is normally higher than the rest – is called the shamash, or the helper candle, and is used to light the rest. The menorah is normally lit at sunset.
The shamash is lit on the first night and a blessing is recited. Although the candles are placed from right to left, they are lit from left to right. The candelabra is traditionally put near a window, to remind passers-by of the miracle of Hanukkah.
A traditional game involving a spinning top, called a dreidel or sevivon, is played by children during Hanukkah. The four sides of the top are imprinted with a Hebrew letter, which are an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning "A great miracle happened there" – referring to the miracle of the oil behind the festival.
Players are given an equal number of sweets or nuts, some of which are placed into a pot in the centre. They take turns spinning the dreidel and each side of it bears a letter which tells the player whether to put in or take out the sweets. The game ends when someone has all of the sweets.
Foods fried in oil, preferably olive oil, are eaten during Hanukkah. Traditional foods include potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, particularly among Ashkenazi families. Polish, Israeli and Sephardi families eat jam-filled doughnuts which are deep-fried in oil.
According to rabbinic literature, there is also a tradition of eating dairy products, such as cheese, during Hanukkah.
There are several Hanukkah-themed songs written for the holiday. These include Hanukkiah Li Yesh ("I Have a Hanukkah Menorah"), Ocho Kandelikas ("Eight Little Candles"), Kad Katan ("A Small Jug") and S'vivon Sov Sov Sov ("Dreidel, Spin and Spin").
The most well known songs in English-speaking countries include Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel and Chanukah, Oh Chanukah.
Gelt, Yiddish for money, is often given out to children during Hanukkah. It normally consists of small coins or chocolate coins.
The tradition of Hanukkah gelt dates back to an old Eastern European custom of children presenting their teachers with a small sum of money as a token of gratitude.