Once upon a time there was this group of warriors from the Highlands of Scotland who somehow found themselves wandering around on the lowlands of Abraham. Their name was MacAbee. You might ask what a bunch of Scotsmen were doing in the Jewish homeland in the 2nd century BCE. Answer:...
They weren’t Scotsmen after all. Rather they were the five sons of a Jewish priest named Mattathias, who started a revolt against the Seleucid (Syrian) overlords who had conquered the Holy Land from the Egyptians and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. Under foreign rule, that holiest of places in the sacked city now had altars to Greek gods, with the high altar featuring a statue of Zeus. Not only that, but pigs, those bêtes noires of Judaism, were sacrificed on that very altar. Meanwhile, the Syrian conquerors forbad the Jewish religion, from circumcision to the celebration of the other sacred rites and all its holy days. After a number of battles, really gorilla actions against forces that outnumbered them, the brothers and their followers managed to recapture Jerusalem, build a new fortification wall around the Temple, and begin the arduous job of cleaning out the pagan idols and other abominations the now-conquered conquerors had left there. In the course of this uprising, the father Mattathias died, and his son Judah (or Judas) took over as leader. Maccabee to be sure wasn’t Judah’s last name. Jews didn’t have last names the way we do. They, like the Arabs, were known by their patronymics, i.e., Judah the son of (ben) Mattathias son of whoever his father had been. Actually, Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”) because of his valor leading to the successful campaign against Antiochus, the Seleucid monarch.
Now, what about that special Hanukkah candelabra, the menorah, comprising eight candleholders, with a ninth, higher than all the others, in the middle? Okay, so here comes the miracle of Hanukkah, AKA the Festival of Lights. When the sons of Mattathias searched the Temple which they were cleaning up, they found only one ritually pure container of olive oil, a single day’s supply, to burn in lieu of candles, which weren’t used then and would have been made of tallow, the product of those forbidden pigs. However, it would take eight days for the brothers to find and ritually press enough olives to complete their job. Here then is where Jehovah stepped in and miraculously extended the sacred oil’s life for an additional seven days. During that time the brothers restored the Temple so that it could be (re-)dedicated, which they undertook as a symbol that the people were once again free to practise their religion. Fittingly, the Hebrew word Hanukkah means “dedication.” Soon after, the rabbis concluded that this restoration of their holiest site needed to be remembered each year. Hence, Hanukkah became an annual eight-day celebration, with the higher middle candle, “the Assistant,” used to light one new candle each day until all were lit. Since the time of the festival, beginning the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, falls close to Christmas, Jews in the diaspora have made it a more major festival than it is—creating a kind of Jewish equivalent to Christmas. And this, dear readers, is Hanukkah today.