Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is observed for eight days, beginning on the evening of the 25th day of the month of Kislev. It commemorates the historic victory of a small band of Maccabees over the ruling Syrian-Greek regime.
The story of Hanukkah began in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. More than a century later, Antiochus Epiphanes, a successor of Alexander, became king of the Syrian-Greeks. He forced the Jews to worship the pagan idols and adopt the Greek culture. Whole families of Jews were executed for their observance of the Sabbath and circumcision. Tens of thousands of men, women, children and infants, who would worship no other gods, were martyred.
In 167 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes marched to Jerusalem, entered the Temple and defiled it. He set up an idol of his god, Zeus, in the Temple and built an altar to Zeus. On the altar, he sacrificed a pig, which the Torah prohibits the Jews to eat. The pig's blood was brought into the Most Holy Place where even the High Priest alone could only enter on the Day of Atonement. This abomination was unheard of before.
In the Judean village of Modi'in, the people were assembled in the town square by Syrian Greek soldiers. An altar was built, and the old priest Mattathias was ordered to sacrifice a pig for the townspeople to eat. Mattathias refused to defile himself or his people. The soldiers insisted, offering great financial incentive.
Finally, another man from the village volunteered to collaborate with the Syrian Greeks. As the man approached the pig, Mattathias suddenly ran forward and assassinated the collaborator, striking the man with a large mallet or hammer. (Thus the name "Maccabees"<Hammer>, for the Hasmoneans)
The five sons of Mattathias drew their weapons, struck down the soldiers, and headed for the hills. They were joined by many fellow revolutionaries, and so began a lopsided revolt against the mighty Syrian Greek Empire.
Soon after, the leadership of the ragtag Jewish army passed to Mattathias' son, Judah, nicknamed the Hammer, or in Hebrew, Maccabee. Thereafter, the revolutionaries were known as The Maccabees.
After three years of Jewish guerilla warfare, the rebels achieved victory. On the 25 of Kislev, 165 BC, the Maccabees triumphantly entered the defiled and half-demolished Temple. They then began the process of rededication.
The undying, eternal flame of the Temple Menorah, the great seven-branched lampstand so central to the worship of Israel, had been extinguished. The Greeks had desecrated nearly all of the sacred oil used for the Temple Menorah. Only a small container remained, containing a one day supply. It would take eight days for the priests to consecrate more oil. Nevertheless, the High priest kindled the Menorah and a miracle happened: The Menorah flame continued to burn for eight days!
To commemorate the event, it was decided that henceforth, the holiday would be observed annually by kindling one new light each day for eight days. Thus Hanukkah became known as the Feast of Lights.
The Hanukkah Menorah has nine branches, eight to commemorate this eight day feast. In celebration, each night of Hanukkah Jews light candles on their menorah, beginning with the shamash (central candle, which lights the others, and in some menorahs is raised over the other eight).
The Golden Lampstand - Read this article to learn more about the original Menorah in Moses' Tabernacle.
The Jewish Calendar - Presents an overview of the Jewish Calendar and Festivals. Also provides links to online tools.
The Five Offerings - Presents an overview of the sacrificial system.
Church, J.R. "Pope Asked to Return Temple Menorah." http://bibeltemplet.net/Menorah.html April 1996.
"The Real Story of Chanukah." http://www.jacsweb.org/spirituality/chanukah.html