Hanukkah: How an ancient revolt sparked the Festival of Lights

For eight days and nights, candles are lit, songs are sung, and dreidels are spun to remember a people’s uprising and holy miracle from more than 2,000 years ago.

By Amy Briggs
Published 23 Dec 2019, 10:15 GMT, Updated 29 Nov 2021, 16:07 GMT
On the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, a colorful menorah lights up the night during Hanukkah.
On the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, a colorful menorah lights up the night during Hanukkah.
Photograph by Yonatan Sindel, Flash90, Redux

It's time to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights that lasts for eight days and nights. This year Hanukkah starts on Sunday, November 28, and ends Monday, December 6. The festival's popularity has surged in modern times, but its origins are ancient and date back to the turbulent centuries following the death of Alexander the Great.

Ancient History

After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., a power struggle broke out among his generals that lasted for more than century. The Greco-Syrian Seleucid kings would emerge victorious and rule many of Alexander’s former territories, including Judea (located in central, present-day Israel). The Seleucids exerted their influence through Hellenization, the spread of Greek art, architecture, and religion. Local communities, especially in Judea, resisted it. 

King Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled the Seleucid Empire from 175 to 164 B.C.
Photograph by Zev Radovan, Bible Land Pictures, Alamy Stock Photo

In 175 B.C. the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes came into power and tried to force Judeans to assimilate. Some scholars believe he believed that single religion might unify to his fractured empire, but his brutal methods undid those intentions. Writing in the first century A.D., Jewish historian Josephus recorded the brutal plundering of Jerusalem and treatment of Jewish dissidents. The Seleucids captured the holy Temple and defiled it by erecting an altar to the Greek god Zeus inside. Antiochus outlawed the Jewish faith and mandated the worship of Greek gods. Josephus vividly described the brutal punishment to those who resisted; they were “whipped with rods, and their bodies torn to pieces, and were crucified, while they were still alive, and breathed. . . . And if there were any sacred book, or the law found, it was destroyed: and those with whom they were found miserably perished also.”

An illuminated 15th-century manuscript of Josephus's The Jewish War features colourful illustrations of the Maccabees' revolt against Antiochus.
Photograph by Josephus Flavius, "Jewish War," Alamy Stock Photo

Horrified by the Temple desecration and cruelty toward the Jewish people, a priest named Mattathias and his sons rose up in rebellion. After Mattathias’s death in 166 B.C., his son Judah the Maccabee (the “Hammer”) took his father’s place in the fight and led the Jewish people in many victories over the Seleucids. In 164, Judah won back Jerusalem and restored the Temple, cleansing and rededicating it. The revolt of the Maccabees, as it came to be known, continued on and ultimately drove the Seleucids from Judea in 160.

Lasting Light

The word Hanukkah means “dedication,” and commemorates the miracle of light that occurred when Judah rededicated the Temple to the Hebrew god. According to the Talmud (one of Judaism’s holy texts), the Seleucids left only one intact vial of oil, just enough to light the Temple’s candelabrum for one day. But it burned for eight days—enough time for the victorious Judeans to secure more oil—and the miracle became the foundation of a beloved holiday to thank God and celebrate the victory of light over darkness.

Today Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev (the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar), which typically falls in late November to mid-December. For eight nights, candles are lit in a menorah, a candelabrum with spaces for nine candles—one for each night plus a “servant” candle called the shamash (shammes in Yiddish). On each successive night, one more candle is added and lit. During the lighting, people recite special blessings and prayers. Songs are sung, and gifts are exchanged to commemorate the miracle in the Temple more than 2,000 years ago.

Amy Briggs is executive editor of National Geographic History magazine.
Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights
Hanukkah, which begins at sundown on December 12 in 2017, is one of the most joyous of Jewish holidays. Learn more about the traditions and history behind the Festival of Lights known as Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah). The celebration lasts for eight nights and days each year around the same time as Christmas.

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