Hanukkah is the longest Jewish holiday. This is interesting, because it’s fairly minor.
Following the collapse of Alexander’s empire, Judea was passed back and forth between Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria. Many Jews began living in the northern reaches of the Levant and had stopped being circumcised in order to better adapt to Hellenistic society. This did not sit well with the high priest Matthew, who launched a war along with his sons (known popularly as the Maccabees) to regain Jewish independence. The Seleucids responded by outlawing devout Judaism, thus forcing the bulk of the Jewish population onto the Maccabees’ side. Early in the fighting, the Maccabees retook control of Jerusalem, taking eight days to restore the Temple, which is why Hanukkah lasts eight days.
Early Medieval Rabbis took issue with the celebration of a holiday that didn’t involve God in any capacity until one of them “remembered” a midrash about the oil in the menorah lasting eight days, which is where that comes from.
Early on, Matthew’s sons all crowned themselves as King, which was unusual and quite illegal as priests could not overlap with secular rulers (nor could anyone outside the Davidic line be King, since David had been chosen by God), but this ended up working out pretty well.
The Hanukkah story was only the beginning, however; the war against the Seleucids lasted decades. With the Seleucids in constant civil war, the Jews would always end up backing a faction that would take power and turn against them, so finally the government of Judea sought outside help stamping them out from a new fledgling power known as Rome. Judea grew to nearly the size of David and Solomon’s Kingdom under Salome Alexandra, and nothing bad ever happened again.
Oh wait, her sons and grandsons were variously incompetent/Parthian puppets who were overthrown by the Romans, who got rid of the whole dynasty and put Herod the Great in there.
Maccabees is basically the Rogue One of the Bible.
Today, Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting the candles on a special nine-candled menorah (in contrast to the seven-candled Temple menorah), eating levivot (latkes) and sufganyot (jelly donuts), and gift-giving. Many Jewish Americans have noted that Hanukkah hasn’t produced a wealth of songs or movies to compete with Christmas, but this is somewhat of a false equivalency because it’s not that important of a holiday.
Tonight will be the seventh night of Hanukkah, as well as my twenty-eighth birthday, and I’m spending it in the snowy (or possibly just rainy, I wrote this weeks ago) North.
ETA: And just my luck, Overly Sarcastic Productions has a video on the Hanukkah story:
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