The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins on the same night every year: the 25th of Kislev. However, since the traditional Jewish calendar is based on lunar months of either 29 or 30 days, that means that the holiday can fall anywhere from Nov. 27 to Dec. 26 in terms of the solar, secular Gregorian calendar used today in the West. This year, though, for the first time in nearly four decades, Hanukkah commences on Christmas Eve.
The word "Hanukkah" derives from a Hebrew verb meaning "to dedicate." The holiday, which is observed for eight nights and days, commemorates the rededication of Jerusalem's temple after the successful second-century B.C. Maccabean Revolt of the Jews against the pagan Seleucid Empire, which had occupied Palestine.
According to the ancient sources (including the late second-century B.C. apocryphal or deuterocanonical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees and the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his books "Antiquities of the Jews" and "Jewish War"), the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes had desecrated the temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and offering pigs within the sanctuary, as well as by putting a stop to the offering of daily Levitical sacrifices in it for three and a half years. He also banned circumcision.
Unsurprisingly, this provoked a massive Jewish rebellion. It was led, first, by a priest named Mattathias (Mattityahu) and then, after his death in 166 B.C., by his five sons, Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan and, perhaps foremost, Judah or Judas. In Hebrew, the latter has traditionally been called "Yehuda HaMakabi" ("Judah the Hammer") — hence the name "Maccabean."
The "Hasmonean Dynasty," as the family and heirs of the priest Mattathias were known, ruled Judea until Pompey the Great arrived in Palestine in 63 B.C. At that point, Rome annexed Judea, setting the stage eventually for the situation as it existed in the days of Jesus, with a Roman governor presiding over the Jewish priestly aristocracy.
However, back to the initial Maccabean victory: When, in 165 B.C., Jewish forces liberated the temple of Jerusalem, the most holy place in the world for Jews, "They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a thicket or on some mountain, and the priests' chambers demolished. Then they tore their garments and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes" (1 Maccabees 4:38-39).
Judah the Hammer immediately appointed a group of priests to supervise the cleansing of the temple. Among other things, they demolished the desecrated main altar and built a new one using uncut stone, according to biblical precepts. When the work was finished, "For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. … Then Judas and his brothers and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary" (4:56, 59).
One other bit of historical background should be mentioned here: According to the Talmud (tractate "Shabbat"), which was compiled roughly six centuries after the event, when the Maccabean liberators entered the temple precincts, they found only enough sacred oil — properly stamped by the Jewish high priest — for one day's lighting of the menorah. They used that oil, but somehow, miraculously, it continued burning for eight days, long enough for a new supply to be pressed and prepared.
Some of the notable elements of Hanukkah celebrations plainly reflect the holiday's historical origins. For example, the kindling of the lights of a nine-branched menorah, with one candle or lamp being added for every night of the festival, harkens back to the legend of the miraculous oil — the ninth branch is traditionally the candle with which the others are lit — as does the eating of oil-based foods such as doughnuts, potato and cheese latkes, and "bimuelos."
Josephus calls Hanukkah the "Festival of Lights." The earliest reference to it as a festival of dedication seems, perhaps surprisingly, to come in the New Testament: "And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch" (John 10:22-23).
It's entirely appropriate that Hanukkah coincides with Christmas this year. Light in darkness, triumph after defeat, renewal after seeming death, veneraton of the temple — these are all fitting Christmas themes, too.