Chanukah celebrates the Jewish revolt against the Greek Empire (actually the Seleucid “branch” of the Greek Empire) that was based in an area where modern-day Syria is located. This took place over 2,000 years ago, about 170 years before the birth of that famous Jewish carpenter/fisherman.
The Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, outlawed Jewish religious practices and actually converted the Temple of the famed Ten Commandments into a place for pagan worship (the current remnants of the Temple in Jerusalem are known as the “Western Wall”). Any Jew that disobeyed the Emperor’s order for pagan worship was put to death.
When a unit of Seleucid troops arrived to attempt to enforce these orders, a Jewish rabbi named Mattathias refused to betray the one God. When one of the Jewish townspeople said that he was going to assimilate and start bowing down to idols (yes, even in the days of the Maccabees, there were pusillanimous leftist Jews), Mattathias killed the traitor, as well as the Seleucian troops. Mattathias’s son Judah organized a small group of men who fled to the Judean hills.
Judah and his men trained in preparation for the inevitable Seleucid military retaliation. Over time, the ranks of the Jewish outlaws grew, and against incredible odds they were victorious in a number of battles against the highly trained, heavily armed Seleucid army. Judah was a brilliant military strategist, utilizing — what were at the time –unconventional military tactics of a guerrilla campaign.
Little do people know that Mattathias, along with Judah and his followers went throughout the Judean lands preaching open resistance. Any towns that had given in to the Seleucids were burnt to the ground. Most importantly, as far as Chanukah is concerned, Judah and his men captured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple for Jewish worship. They thought they only had oil for the eternal light for one night, but it lasted eight days (thus, the eight days of Chanukah).
As you can see, the story of the Maccabees is much better than the story of William Wallace as depicted in the movie Braveheart. For those of you not aware, Maccabi is the Hebrew word for “Hammer”. Mattathias and Judah were actually part of the Hasmoneons, but evidently people thought enough of Judah’s ass-kicking approach to warfare that they starting calling him “the hammer”. Thus, we always refer to this small band of right wing Jews as the Maccabees.
(note: this is a condensed version I posted a couple of years ago)