Hanukkah (also spelled Hanukka, Chanukah or Chanukkah) is known as the Feast of Dedication, Feast of Lights or Feast of the Maccabees. It begins on the 25th day of Kislev (the third month in the Jewish calendar, approximately December in the Gregorian calendar) and continues for 8 consecutive days.
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. In 168 BC, Syria captured Jerusalem and Syria's king, Antochus, dedicated the temple to the worship of Zeus Olympus. Judas Maccabee recaptured Jerusalem three years later and rededicated the temple.
The tradition of lighting a menorah to commemorate Hanukkah stems from a story in the Talmud. According to the story, only a small amount of non-desecrated olive oil could be found for the temple dedication ceremony. Miraculously this small amount of oil burned for eight days. Today, each day of Hanukkah is commemorated by the lighting of a branch of the Hanukkiah (a special menorah). On the first day of Hanukkah, either a candle or oil in one branch of the menorah is lit. On the second day two branches should be alight, and so on until the eighth day. The shammash (servant) -- often the central stem of the menorah -- is used to kindle the other menorah lights.
Today, Hanukkah is a time of celebration. Latkes, or potato pancakes, are a traditional food, eaten with applesauce and sour cream. Celebrants also exchange gifts on each night that a candle is lit.