About 200 BC Israel was a state in the Seleucid Empire (an empire ruled under Greek law) and under the overall charge of the King of Syria. However, they could follow their own religion and its practises. In 171 BC, There was a new King called Antiochus IV, who also called himself Antiochus Epiphanes which means ‘Antiochus the visible god’. Antiochus wanted all the empire to follow Greek ways of life and the Greek religion with all its gods. Some of the Jews wanted to be more Greek, but most wanted to stay Jewish.
The brother of the Jewish high priest wanted to be more Greek, so he bribed Antiochus so he would be come the new High Priest instead of his brother and then he had his brother killed! Three years later another man bribed Antiochus even more to let him become the High Priest! To pay his bribe he stole some of the objects made of gold that were used in the Jewish Temple.
On his way home from having to retreat from a battle, Antiochus stopped in Jerusalem and he let out all his anger on the city and the Jewish people. He ordered houses to be burned down and tens of thousands of Jews were killed or put into slavery. Antiochus then went to attack the Jewish Temple, the most important building in Israel to Jews. The Syrian soldiers took all the treasures out of the temple and on 15 Kislev 168 BC Antiochus put up a status of the Greek god Zeus in the centre of the Jewish Temple (but it had the face of Antiochus!). Then on 25 Kislev he desecrated the most holy place in the temple and destroyed the Jewish holy scrolls.
Antiochus then banned practising the Jewish faith & religion (if you were found out you and all your family were killed) and made the Temple into a shrine to Zeus. There were many Jews killed for their faith. Soon afterwards a Jewish rebellion started.
It began when a ‘former’ Jewish Priest, called Mattathias, was forced to make an offering to Zeus in his village. He refused to do so and killed a Syrian Soldier! Mattathias’s sons joined him and killed the other soldiers in the village. Mattathias was an old man and died soon after this, but his son Judah then took charge of the freedom fighters. Judah’s nickname was ‘Maccabee’ which come from the Hebrew word for hammer. He and his troops lived in caves and fought an undercover war for three years. They then met the Syrians in open battle and defeated them.
When they got back to Jerusalem, the Temple was in ruins and the statue of Zeus/Antiochus was still standing. They cleaned the Temple. They rebuilt the Jewish altar and on 25 Kislev 165 BC, exactly three years after the statue was put up, the altar and Temple was rededicated to God.
There are several theories about why Hanukkah is celebrated over eight nights. One legend says that when Judah and his followers went into the Temple there was only enough oil to burn for one night, but that it burned for eight nights. Another story says that they found eight iron spears and put candles of them and used them for lighting in the Temple.