Chanukah is in many ways tailor-made for secular Jews. Unlike most other holidays, Chanukah has little religious significance and is based on a real historical event. It is a quintessential family celebration, replete with candles, special foods, games, gifts and songs. Lasting an entire week in December, it provides an excellent alternative to the allure of Christmas. Chanukah also has a seasonal aspect connecting it to the celebration of the winter solstice. In the old country, children received coins from their relatives, called Chanukah gelt, and played with the spinning top or dreydl. Since Chanukah was the only time that gambling was permitted, Talmudic students and secularized young adults alike, used the dreydl for a very mundane purpose. (Card-playing was also the rage.) Yet the dreydl has deeper significance. Each of its four-sides is marked with letters nun, giml, hay and shin, which stand for Nes gadol hayo shom. It means "a great miracle happened there." This need not be interpreted as the fictitious miracle of the oil. The Maccabeean victory against overwhelming odds was a real one.
Secular Jews light the menorah or the chanukah lempl, accompanied by sayings that refer to the Maccabees, Jewish culture and modern Israel as well as more universal themes such as peace, justice, democracy, workers' rights and pluralism. Among our favorite songs is "Light One Candle" by Peter Yarrow and the Yiddish classic, "Chanukah, Oy Chanukah." The Dreydl Song, of course, is ideal for children, but teenagers might prefer Adam Sandler's hilarious ditties about Jewish celebrities. Any way you fry the latkes, (or, if you are Sephardic, the jelly donuts) or distribute the (chocolate) Chanukah gelt, Chanukah has something for everyone.
From a historical perspective, Chanukah is the story of a successful guerilla war, fought by a determined group of Jewish patriots, led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, which resulted in the establishment of a Jewish state. The revolt began in 167 BCE in response to Antiochus IV's (a Greek emperor from the Seleucid dynasty based in Syria) policies of onerous taxation, his looting of the Jerusalem Temple and its conversion to a pagan shrine. To punish the rebels and crush the revolt, Antiochus launched a violent campaign to Hellenize the Jewish population. This was a departure from the traditional Hellenistic policy of allowing considerable religious and cultural autonomy to Jews and other subject peoples.
Some of the more Hellenized Jews sided with Antiochus, and they became the first victims of the rebels' wrath. However, the Jewish poor flocked to the rebel banner, and in 165 BCE, the Maccabees recaptured the Temple. They removed all pagan symbols and re-dedicated it as the seat of Judaism in an 8-day festival that included the lighting of candles. Hence Chanukah means "dedication," but it was known from the beginning as the "Festival of Lights." The miracle of the oil, which should have burned for only one day, but lasted for eight, was invented centuries later by the Talmudic rabbis to make the holiday more religious.
The war actually continued on and off until 142 BCE (Judah died in battle in160 BCE,) when the Jews finally achieved independence under the leadership of Judah's younger brother, Simon. His son, John Hyrcanus, established a new dynasty, called the Hasmoneans. Sadly, he and all of his successors (except Alexandra Salome, the Jewish Queen who reigned from 76-67 BCE,) were terrible rulers whose imperialist policies led to the only instance in Jewish history where Jews forcibly converted other peoples. Ultimately their authoritarian rule caused so much bloodshed and civil strife that they opened the door to the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 BCE. Tragically, the oppressed turned into oppressors.
The Book of Maccabees, the closest thing we have to a contemporary account of the revolt, was written in Greek by an Alexandrian Jew. It was excluded from the Jewish Bible, because the story was too secular. Ironically, Christians preserved the Book of Maccabees in a collection of writings, known as the Apocrypha, which Jews were forbidden to read. Nevertheless, the story of the Maccabees stirring victory against a ruthless tyrant survived in the folk tradition, and the holiday remained popular among the Jewish common people.
Chanukah was considered a minor holiday by the rabbis. It was too obvious that the Jews themselves, rather than God, were responsible for the entire affair. Furthermore, the rabbis took a dim view of Hasmoneans. They just exhibited too much chutzpah. Among their many transgressions were that they established a dynasty that did not descend from King David, appointed high priests not descended from the first High Priest, Aaron and, to add insult to injury, combined the two into one office. This is not to say that the rabbis did not have some good reasons to dislike them. The Hasmoneans ruthlessly persecuted the Pharisees, the immediate predecessors of the rabbinical class. It is also likely that many Jews, fearing for their security in the Diaspora, were afraid to celebrate a holiday about a Jewish military victory over a foreign enemy.
Some Chanukah songs, written in Yiddish, contain mournful statements filled with nostalgia for bygone days when Jews were fighters and lived on their own land. Morris Rosenfeld, the Yiddish proletarian "sweatshop poet" wrote in this vein. However, with the rise of nationalist movements in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, Jews were challenged to re-examine their own past. Zionists and Bundists (Jewish Socialists) revived Chanukah as a proud assertion of the Jewish national spirit. The nationalist song, "Who Can Retell?" (Mee Y'malel) became a favorite among Zionist circles in the early 20th century.
Who can retell the things that befell us Who can count them? In every age a hero or sage, came to our aid.
Hark! Long ago in Israel's ancient land Brave Maccabeus led the faithful band, But now all Israel must as one arise, Redeem itself through deeds and sacrifice.
Mee y'malel gvurot Yisrael? Otan mee yemneh? Hayn b'khol dor yakum hageebor go'el ha-am Sh'ma! Bayameem hahaym bazman hazeh. Makabee moshee-ah ufodeh Uv'yahmaynu kol am Yisrael, Yitakhed yakum v'yeega-ayl.
The Chanukah story had an impact on Christians as well. In 18th century New England, Protestants justified their opposition to British rule by quoting a famous Maccabeean saying: "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God." On a lighter note, here's the first verse of a "Chanukah carol" for you to build on: "On the first night of Chanukah my true love gave to me, a portrait of Judah Maccabee…"
Sholem Aleichem wrote two wonderful stories about Chanukah: Chanukah Money (about the custom of distributing it) and Cnards (about card players and swindlers), both from The Old Country.
For more on the secular Jewish approach to Chanukah, see Hershl Hartman's essay, The Hanuka Festival: A Guide for the Rest of Us, which also appears as "Using the Tradition," in Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought. Both of these publications are available through the CSJO.