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Monday, 14 December, 1998, 15:53 GMT
Happy Hanukkah!
The Menorah has come to symbolise the Jewish religion
With Christmas fever reaching its peak it is easy to forget that this is also a festive time for Jews all around the world.

On the night of 13 December, they lit the first candles in the week-long "festival of lights" known as Hanukkah, also spelt Chanukah.

The Maccabee revolt began in the village of Modi'in, now in modern-day Israel
They are celebrating freedom to practise their own religion, which happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UN declaration of human rights.

Hanukkah celebrates the first major rebellion in ancient Jewish history - the victory of the Maccabee Jews over the Syrian Greeks in 161BC.

At the time, Israel was under the control of the Seleucid dynasty, which inherited the country from Alexander the Great's Greek empire. King Antiochus IV wanted to force all the people in his empire to worship Greek gods. Jewish rituals such as the Sabbath and circumcision were outlawed.

The Jewish rebellion was sparked off in the village of Modi'in when a detachment from King Antiochus' army came to set up an altar and commanded the Jews to sacrifice a pig on it.

Mattathias, a priest, killed the Jew that was about to obey the order and then retreated into the mountains with his five sons. They began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies.

Miracle of the oil lamp

Mattathias' son, Judah the Maccabee, took up the fight when his father died and led his forces to victory, liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple of Solomon from the Hellenists. Judah's soldiers rededicated the temple by lighting an oil-lamp, but they could find only one cruse of oil to keep it alight. By some miracle, the oil lasted eight whole days, long enough to obtain further supplies.

Judah decreed that this miracle and the rededication of the Temple should be celebrated by a national holiday. Ever since that time, Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the Menorah - a candelabra with up to eight branches.

The Menorah became not only the symbol of Hanukkah but also the emblem of Judaism itself.

Like Christmas, Hanukkah is a family occasion. On every night for eight days, a member of the family lights one candle until the whole Menorah is alight. As the candle is lit, a blessing is recited and everyone sings special Hanukkah songs.

Children play "spin the dreidel"
Ashkenazi Jews - those from Germany and Eastern Europe - sing a hymn called Ma'oz Tzur Yesh'uati (Mighty Rock of my Salvation). Sephardi Jews - of Spanish, Portuguese or North African descent - recite Psalm 30.

Children play games with a special Hanukkah spinning top, called a dreidel .

This cube-shaped toy bears a Hebrew letter on each side. Whichever letter is visible when the top stops spinning wins or loses them the stake - usually a pile of sweets. Children also receive small gifts or gelt - Hanukkah money.

Time for fritters and doughnuts

Hanukkah is also a time for feasting and some dishes have a special significance.

Potato Latkes: A favourite Hanukkah snack
People eat fried food like Latkes (potato fritters), pancakes and doughnuts - "oily" dishes to remember the miracle of light. It is no coincidence that doughnuts are also sold for Christmas celebrations in Poland - where they are called ponchiki - and Germany (Berliners).

Hanukkah is celebrated in different ways all over the world but the message behind the story is the same - the victory of the few over the many, the courage of the Jews to assert themselves as a people and initiate a national and cultural renaissance.

See also:

14 Dec 98 | World
Make your own potato Latkes
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