The development of Hanukkah through the ages
The miracle of the oil is a legend but the tradition for lighting lamps had developed by the first century AD. The Festival of Lights is in fact the name used for the festival in other sources at this period. One reason may have been the diplomatic problem of celebrating freedom from the Greeks when under the rule of another empire, the Romans. Also the Maccabees founded the dynasty of the Hasmoneans and these had become very unpopular. The Hanukkah lights enabled people to focus the festival on a religious theme.
As persecution increased in Christian Europe, the themes of deliverance from one's enemies and of having religious freedom became very strong. But the lighting of the Hanukkah lights has remained the central tradition. Indeed it became the tradition to set the Hanukkiah in the window even though it might be dangerous to do so.
In the Middle Ages there was an emphasis on the theme of martyrdom as many Jewish people were murdered by Crusader knights. The story of Hannah and her sons and also of Judith and Holofernes became popular. These were to encourage Jewish people to stand firm in their faith against persecution.
During these times of persecution, a spinning top or dreidel, was kept on the table while people were studying the Torah scroll. If attackers burst in, the scroll was whisked away and it looked as if the people were simply playing a game of chance with a spinning top. The letters on the top, NGHS, are supposed to stand for, `Nes Gadol Hayah Sham', or `A great miracle happened there'.
Persecution has never been far from the Jewish people and was at its most terrible in the twentieth century in Nazi Europe. So Hanukkah has retained its relevance to Jewish people through these times of suffering.
Finally in the twentieth century especially in America, Hanukkah has come to be a kind of Jewish Christmas. The old tradition of giving money or `Hanukkah gelt', has been developed into a general present giving tradition, and the Hanukkah lights have replaced the Christmas tree as a focus for the festival.
Food for the festival
Hanukkah is often jokingly called the heart attack festival. This is because all the foods traditional for the holiday contain oil or cheese.
The oil is to remember the miracle of the menorah lights. Typical foods are potato latkes - these are like hash browns and are eaten with sour cream and apple sauce; pancakes and doughnuts are also eaten.
The other festival food is anything made of cheese. This comes from the story of Judith, the beautiful Jewish widow and Holofernes, the commander of the army that had besieged Jerusalem. - Judith gave the General a meal of salty cheese and wine. He became drunk and she murdered him in his bed!