Like Christmas, Hanukkah is a holiday with a long and confusing history, not terribly well understood even by historians, and most people choose to remember only part of it.
In the beginning…
In the beginning, Hanukkah was probably a festival celebrating the olive harvest, which happens in late November in Israel. Since olive oil was the main source of light, and also of fat in people’s diets, it was super important, and a successful olive harvest was cause for celebration. Naturally you would celebrate it by lighting lamps, and the more so since it coincides with the darkest time of the year. And by eating foods fried in oil like honey cakes and latkes.
After the Babylonian Captivity, when leading Jews came back to Israel, they took a different view of what it meant to be Jewish. They had been living in cities, and they weren’t as interested in the farmer’s harvests as earlier people had been. They wanted their holidays to be about God, and ceremony, and politics and war, not about basic things like olives. And not related to other people’s holidays, either. So they repurposed Hanukkah as the story of a miracle, the olive oil burning for eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Under the influence of these political, war-loving Jews, they revolted first against Greek rule – that’s the Maccabees – then against Roman rule – that’s the First and Second Jewish Revolts. The Romans captured the big menorah from the Temple and carried it off to Rome as plunder. Then the Romans threw the Jews out of Israel.
When a lot of Jews were living in northern Europe, the olive oil harvest wasn’t as big a deal to them. They weren’t farmers anymore. And the Maccabees were far away, a long time ago, a different world. But they were now living further north, where it was very dark in December, much darker than Israel gets. So the lights of Hanukkah became more important to them. Around 1500, they also started to play a popular gambling game at Hanukkah – the dreidel game.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, when many Jewish people came to the United States, they wanted to figure out how to stay Jewish and be Americans at the same time. Many of them tried to make Judaism more like American Christianity, so they could fit in better.
They started to have sermons in their synagogues, like Protestants did. Women started to go to services more. Parents started to give presents to kids at Hanukkah, the way Christians did at Christmas (which was also still pretty new at this time.)
But most of what people do for Hanukkah still goes back to the very oldest part of the holiday: oil and lights.