LOS ANGELES -- Observant Jews in the Southland celebrated the first night of Hanukkah Sunday by lighting candles at sundown to commemorate the Maccabees' victory over a larger Syrian army in 165 B.C.
Sunday's public Hanukkah observances included a celebration at Universal CityWalk with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa among those scheduled to attend. On Monday, Villaraigosa will light the City Hall menorah and the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Energy Alternative Menorah.
To Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Hanukkah is "a celebration of freedom, not only freedom for Jews from their occupiers, but also freedom for all peoples'' that has "metaphors in today's life for Jews and non-Jews."
"It's a time to reflect on those who have fought to gain their freedom and those who still don't have their freedom," Yaroslavsky told City News Service. "It's a solemn holiday, but on the whole, it's a festive holiday. It's a very happy time for the family to gather round the candelabra, to sing songs, exchange gifts and celebrate each other."
Hanukkah -- it means dedication in Hebrew -- is observed around the world by the lighting of candles in a Hanukkah menorah each day at sundown for eight days, with an additional candle added each day. It is the only Jewish holiday that commemorates a military victory.
The reason for the lights is so passers-by should see them and be reminded of the holiday's miracle.
Other Hanukkah traditions include spinning a dreidel, a four-sided top, which partially commemorates a game that Jews under Greek domination played to camouflage their Torah study, and eating foods fried in olive oil, such as potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts.
In the United States, the tradition of giving children Hanukkah "gelt" (the Yiddish word for money) has evolved into a gift-giving holiday to prevent Jewish children from feeling left out of Christmas gift-giving.
Unlike the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, or Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, observant Jews are permitted to work and attend school during Hanukkah, which, in Judaism, is regarded as a relatively minor holiday.
Hanukkah's origin stems from the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem by Judah Maccabee following the defeat of the Hellenist Syrian forces of Antiochus IV, who had dedicated the temple to the worship of Zeus.
Maccabee and his soldiers, who wanted to light the temple's ceremonial lamp with ritually pure olive oil as part of their rededication, found only enough oil to burn for one day. But, in what was regarded as a miracle, the oil burned for eight days.
Hanukkah's official acceptance in the United States has grown in recent years. The U.S. Postal Service issuing the first in a series of Hanukkah stamps in 1996.
A Hanukkah menorah -- it is called a Hanukiah and differs from a traditional menorah by having nine branches, instead of seven -- was first lit in the White House in 2001, which now has become an annual practice.
On Tuesday, President George W. Bush commemorated the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel by lighting the menorah presented in 1951 to President Harry S. Truman by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
A poll commissioned by the National Retail Federation and conducted by BIGresearch Sept. 30-Oct. 7 found that 6.8 percent of adults surveyed said they would celebrate Hanukkah, compared to 94.1 percent for Christmas and 2.4 percent for Kwanzaa.