Netzarim, Original followers of Yeshua & His 12
The word "Chanukah" means "dedication". The holiday celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E., after the Maccabee family and their followers recaptured the Temple Mount from the Syrians.
Unfortunately for internet search engines, there is no standard English spelling. People commonly use start the word with either Ch or H (as with all Hebrew "ch" noises, this is the sound heard in "Bach", not "chair"), and people may or may not double the n, k, or both.
In the year 174 B.C.E., Antiochus IV became ruler of Syria. He was a harsh tyrant and contemptuous of religion. He gave himself the title "Epiphanes" ("beloved of the gods"), but a contemporary historian, Polebius, wrote that "Epimanes" ("madman") was more accurate.
Until this time, the land of Israel had not been harshly treated by the Syrians. The previous Syrian ruler, Seleucus, normally treated the Jews with favor and granted them privileges. This made many Jews eager to be accepting of Syrian society. Modern historians call people participating in Syrian culture "Hellenized" because of the Greek roots of this culture, such as gymnasium use and idolatry.
So our story starts with the Jewish people in trouble for two reasons: the new ruler of Syria hated them because they were religiously devout, and their community identity (including their covenant relationship with God) was threatened by widespread Jewish Hellenization.
Antiochus prohibited specifically Jewish laws, and replaced Yochanan the High Priest with Yochanan’s Hellenist brother. Later another replacement High Priest was instituted: a man named Menelaus who told Antiochus he could bring in more money to the Temple, and would give it to Syria. Yochanan protested the corruption of the priesthood, and Menelaus had him murdered. This assassination, and a false rumor that Antiochus had died prompted a Jewish revolt against Menelaus.
But Antiochus had not died, and responded to the revolt by ordering his army to kill thousands of Jews. He then outlawed all Jewish worship and customs, and ordered all Torah scrolls to be burnt. Many Jewish people died as martyrs rather than abide by these new decrees.
Eventually Antiochus even sent men from town to town, forcing the Jews to worship idols. Those who refused were killed. This happened in the village of Modin, where an old priest named Mattiyahu lived. Mattiyahu became enraged at another Jew who was about to comply with offering a sacrifice to an idol, killed that Jew, and then fled into the mountains before Antiochus’s men could catch him. In the mountains, Mattiyahu was joined by his family and many friends.
The sons of Mattiyahu were called the Maccabees. They began a revolt against Syria that eventually succeeded.
The recapture of the Temple Mount and re-dedication of the Temple actually happened twenty-seven years before their revolt against Syria was finished. That year the Jewish people had been recently unable to celebrate Sukkot, so they turned the Temple purification and re-dedication into an eight-day holiday to thank God for helping them and to do the best they could at celebrating a late Sukkot.
Chanukah has been changed through the years, because although its story is simple the historical implications are more complex.
The Maccabees did not only fight the Syrian army: they also spent a lot of time killing Hellenized Jews. And after winning their revolt, they set up the Hasmonaean dynasty to rule Israel that began troubled (contrary to scripture, it combined the roles of King and High Priest) and ended with incredible corruption. So the Maccabees cannot simply be admired as heroes. They are not great role models.
Also, the story of Chanukah describes how a small number of Jews can, with God’s help, defeat the mightiest army of their time. At certain times been very inspiring, such as to the first-century Zealots. But the rabbis realized that most often, in the Diaspora, a holiday with such a theme would make the Jewish people unpopular with their neighbors. So the Gemara, in Shabbat 21b, includes an extra bit of story not in the Books of the Maccabees or the writings of historians: the miracle of the oil. According to the Talmud, when the Maccabees re-dedicated the Temple, they only could find enough ritual oil to last for one day. But a miracle happened, and the oil lasted eight days, until more oil could be made and ceremonially prepared. This legend helped the holiday not stir up trouble, since the miracle shifted in focus from a military victory to a more benign symbol that was still about how God was with his people.
In modern times, the holiday’s focus has continued to shift. The early Zionists were fond of its military side, even though they were fighting swampland mosquitoes and barely arable land instead of a human army. Then, after the Holocaust, many Jewish people became very anti-military, so the focus returned to the legend of the oil.
The legend about the oil is why a chanukiah (a candelabra with eight arms and a ninth, central lamp) evolved as a Chanukah symbol, from the Temple’s menorah (a candelabra with six arms and a seventh, central lamp)
Technically, that’s a chanukiah. But, you are right, especially in America where sloppy speech is common, many people will call it a menorah.
The most clear thing he did was to act out the Chanukah story as a metaphor with a spiritual message. In John 10-11 we read that at about the time of Chanukah he was in Jerusalem, at the Temple, having just taught about "my sheep know my voice". But those in authority reject his truth, so he flees and goes into the hiss beyond the Jordan, where many friends and family rally to him. Then he hears that something that had been dedicated to God (Lazarus) has been taken from them. He leads his people into danger, back to the land where the authorities rule, to reclaim this thing. Like the Maccabees, he and his people talk about Resurrection on the Last Day, and being secure in knowing they will forever life with God. His foray is successful in regaining what had been taken (Lazarus is brought back to life), but that is not the end of his struggle with the authorities.
This metaphor is not very detailed. Lazarus is not similar to the Temple, and Yeshua did not do any violent fighting. But consider how dedicated to God a brought-back-to-lift Lazarus must have felt. And consider that, like the rededicated Temple, he became targeted by the opposing authorities who understood his symbolic power for the "rebels" (John 12:10-11). When we think of rededicating ourselves to God at Chanukah time, think of Lazarus.
There are no scriptural commands to celebrate Chanukah. It is neither a chag (pilgrimage festival) nor a moad (appointed time). But it is an important part of Jewish culture, which teaches the valuable lessons already described. It is certainly a time to examine and re-dedicate ourselves as "Temples" in which the Spirit of God dwells.
We should pray for the Temple mount to again be a place dedicated to God. It is once again under the control of another government and dedicated to a different religion.
The most visible celebration of Chanukah is the lighting of the chanukiah each night. The chanukiah is then put in a windowsill, so it can be seen by people passing the house.
It is also traditional to remember the miracle of the oil by eating food fried in oil, especially latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly donuts.
The dreidel (a four-sided top) and gelt (coins, or in modern times often chocolate coins) are used for a game to help teach children about Chanukah. According to legend, the dreidel was used to trick enemy soldiers: when a group of Jews studying Torah heard a knock at the door, they quickly hid their scrolls and books and pretended to be gambling.
Because of another holiday also celebrated on the 25th day of a Winter solstice month, it has become traditional to exchange gifts on Chanukah. There is no reason not to do this, especially if it can be done in a manner to help give peace to otherwise envious children (or adults), while not becoming the central theme of the holiday.
There are also traditional Chanukah songs, although these are sadly few in number.
Many synagogues have a Chanukah party with latkes (and applesauce and sour cream), other foods, dreidel playing, dancing, singing, and other festivity.