To understand the significance of Chanukah is to travel back in time. Back to the time of the Pyramids. To the reign of Alexander the Great. This legendary ruler, whose empire stretched almost half-way around the world, had conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but permitted these countries to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy despite living under his rule. To this end, many of the Jewish faith assimilated much of the Hellenistic culture - going as far as adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks.
Fast forward almost 100 years and the Jews were suddenly oppressed. Living in fear under the rule of Antiochus IV. Antiochus had no respect for the Jews' freedom of religion or anything else for that matter. He soon prohibited the practice of the Jewish faith, placed a Hellenistic Priest in their temple and generally upset everyone to the extent that their was a revolt. In short order, the Jews defeated the Syrians, regained their temple and began anew.
According to tradition, when it was time to officially re-dedicate their temple there was only enough one day's worth of oil to burn in the sacred Menorah. Incredibly, it burned for eight days -- the time necessary to create a new supply of oil! Since that time a festival lasting eight days was declared to commemorate this miracle. The Jewish faith does not glorify war, so the Chanukah celebration recognizes the miracle of the oil, not the defeat of the Syrians.
In terms of religious significance, Chanukah does not rank high on the list, there are other days that are officially recognized by the Jewish faith: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name just a few. But Chanukah is still a special event if for no other reason than the lighting of the Menorah.
The candles are arranged in the Menorah, an eight-branch candelabrum. The Menorah is also referred to as the Chanukiah. The Menorah actually contains 9 candles. One candle for each night of the celebration and one that sits in its center that is used to light the candles each night. On the first night of Chanukah, one candle is placed in the Menorah at the far right. Then, each successive night, another candle is added from right to left, but lit from left to right. The candles are left to burn at their own rate. They are never blown out.
The Chanukah candles are special candles used only for the celebration of Chanukah. And the ninth candle, called the shammus, is a different height from the other eight, and that candle also is sacred and should not be used for any other purpose.
The Chanukah celebration is not as serious as it may sound. Yes, it is a festival of remembrance, prayer and thanks. But it is also a time for joy and gift giving. A time of song and laughter. In reference to the oil of Chanukah, tradition dictates that foods are to be fried in oil. And some of the most well-known dishes are potato pancakes, donuts and fish. There are plenty of recipes for these dishes and more available on the internet.