I was raised Southern Baptist in the reddest of red states, so I actually know very little about Hanukkah (or Hannukah or Chanukah or Chaka Khan). Back in the early 90s, I worked with a girl named Elizabeth who was Jewish (although she brought this up while eating a bacon-cheeseburger, so I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that she wasn't strictly orthodox). Anyway, Elizabeth used to get annoyed by the fact that Christmas was the 500-pound gorilla of December holidays, and Hanukkah always seemed to place a distant second (or third, if you count New Year's Eve). There were no dogs barking "The Dreidel Song", no Barbara Streisand Hanukkah albums, and no Charlie Brown Hanukkah specials. Stores were putting up their Christmas decorations in October, but nobody was offering any special Festival of Lights savings.
(To quote Lewis Black, "How many shopping days do you Christians need? When I was a kid, Halloween was Halloween, and Santa wasn't sticking his fat ass into it!")
Ironically, when I asked Elizabeth what Hanukkah was a celebration of, she was a bit hazy on the details. "Something about the Maccabees and some oil that burned for eight nights," was all she could remember. Fortunately, I happened to stumble across a holiday special that answered most of my questions.
Airing at 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon on one of the local Dallas stations, the Hanukkah special opened with a group of kids playing baseball in what was obviously a soundstage designed to look like a vacant lot. I swear, this thing had the production values of a Sid and Marty Krofft show.
Anyway, one of the kids informed his friends that he needed to knock off and go home because his family was going to begin their Hanukkah celebration that evening. The rest of the kids were puzzled by his strange and exotic ways. They gathered around him in earnest fascination and asked him, "What is this thing that you call 'Hanukkah'?"
Well, before the young man could educate his goyim friends, a voice from off screen announced, "I believe I can answer that." The camera turned dramatically to reveal an older man wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball uniform. And just in case you didn't recognize him, one of the kids exclaimed helpfully, "Wow! It's Jewish pitching legend Sandy Koufax!"
Sandy went on to explain, with the assistance of cartoony drawings, that the Maccabees had defeated the Assyrians in 165 B.C. and driven them out of Judea. However, before they left, the Assyrians had ransacked and desecrated the Holy Temple. After cleaning up the mess, the Maccabees wanted to rededicate the Temple by lighting the Ner Hatamid (or the Holy Light of the Eternal). Unfortunately, the Assyrians had polluted all of the oil vessels except for one. Even though there was only enough oil to last for one day, the Maccabees went ahead and lit the candle anyway. And the oil burned for eight days, giving the priests a chance to make and consecrate some more.
Another story integral to the Hanukkah tale (and one that Sandy didn't even mention) is that of Judith, a pious widow who was said to be the sister of Judas Maccabeaus. Judith was living in the village of Bethulia when it was beseiged by Holofernes and his Assyrian forces. With the water supply cut off, things looked dire for the poor villagers. But Judith had a plan to save Bethulia. She went to the Assyrian camps and surrendered to Holofernes, who was smitten by her beauty. She went back to his tent with him and fed him salty cheese. The cheese made Holofernes so thirsty that he drank copious amounts of wine and fell asleep. And as he snoozed away, Judith took his sword and cut his head off.
Holy shit! Take that, virgin birth and flying reindeer!
And on that note, Happy Hanukkah, everybody!