Chanukah is the festival of lights. Instead of one day of presents, we get EIGHT CRAZY NIGHTS!..... And so sings Adam Sandler.
Chanukah starts on Tuesday night, and lasts for eight nights. Every night we light an additional candle to commemorate the miracle of the Maccabees.
The story goes that the Syrian Greeks were ruling over the Hebrews, and they had imposed restrictions over them, in fear that they would revolt etc. Learning Torah, keeping Kosher, or Shabbat, all were outlawed. And finally, Idols were brought into the Holy Temple, and Jews were encouraged to worship Zeus and other Greek gods. At least this is how I remember the story told.
So Judah Maccabee and his brothers and others decided to revolt, and gain their freedom. And after 3 years, a small Army of Hebrews won against the strength of the Greek soldiers. On the 25th of Kislev, when the Hebrews went in to restore the Holy Temple to it's holiness, they could only find enough oil to light the eternal light for one night, and well, it lasted for eight days and nights. That's the story I remember as a child.
With more research and reading and actually listening to my Rabbi's sermontheis past Shabbat I learn that there's a lot of symbolism to this story relating to how Chanukah is practiced today. Some I knew of and others, well it was kinda nice to learn.
We eat foods cooked in oil, such as potato pancakes (latkes) and dohnuts to remember the importance of the oil in the story.
We play the dreidel because during the rule of the Greeks the dreidel was used to mask the study of Torah so that the Greeks would not find out that the Jews were still studying.
We give Gelt (money) as a symbol of freedom, and also as a symbol of the freedom and mandate to channel material wealth towards spiritual end.
There are 2 miracles that occur, large and small. The large miracle is that Gd was with the Hebrews, and helped them to win the great battle over the Greek army to gain their freedom.
The small miracle is that the oil lasted for eight nights instead of one, just long enough until additional, pure, oil could be brought to Jerusalem, to the Holy Temple. And so we celebrate these miracles by celebrating and lighting our Menorahs, like the one that was used in the Holy Temple at that time. We especially celebrate the light the Menorah gives. The light is considered a holy light, it can not be used for any purposed except "to gaze upon it." The light to many, represents being brought out of the darkness of oppression, to freedom. The dark loss of ritual and Torah study to the light, the freedom of Judiasm not practiced in secret and hiding.
Chanukah is not a gift giving holiday. It has become one in recent years owing to its proximity to Christmas. As a child, I did recieve presents, one every night. I grew up in a fairly secular home, and we did exchange gifts for Chanukah. But I never remember them being huge big gifts, as I see children (and adults too) getting for Christmas. (I am ALWAYS amazed at the amount of gifts, and the expense of gift giving at Christmas time. It is completely overwhelming to me.) Anyway, the gifts I got as a child were small games and books, and on the last night, it was not necessarily the largest or most expensive present, but it definately was the best, the one you wanted the most.
Now, I do exchange some gifts, usually with Rob or other close friends. But I don't make a huge deal of it, one or two small gifts, I don't get too extravagant.
Personally, Chanukah was always a favorite holiday, not because of gifts, but because I loved (and still do love) lighting the Menorah. I love the candles and the light, I love to watch them burn, and to me, it always seems Magical somehow. They're not just candles burnong but something more, like the light of my spirituality is reflected in the candles. And I guess that's what they are supposed to represent. The light of Torah and Judaism. I never really could put it into words until now.
Happy Chanukah all, may the light of the holiday shine into your lives.