The festival was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers following their victory over the Syrian Greeks. They were able to recapture Jerusalem, and to rededicate the ancient Temple. Indeed, the word Hanukkah means rededication. Traditionally, when the Temple was recaptured a single cruise of holy oil was found to be sufficient for eight days until more oil was consecrated. Thus the holiday we celebrate today is eight days long.
Over eight days we light a special eight branched candelabra called a Hanukiah (most have an additional branch, to hold the candle used to light the others) commemorating the ancient miracle and Jewish survival. On the first night we light one candle, and add an additional candle until we light all eight on the last night. Light is a symbol of hope and commitment. As we light our candles each night, we like our ancestors rededicate ourselves to the preservation of our tradition for ourselves and for future generations of Jews.
When the past is forgotten, people perforce become part of the empty homogenized largely Americanized materialistic culture. Indeed, recent studies point to a decline in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, and the assimilation of many young Jews who look elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance. I place this decline squarely at our failure to teach our tradition in all its nuance and complexity. It has the power to answer the spiritual needs of Jewish adults, yet this is unknown or forgotten, because we as modern Jews are content that Jewish education end, for the most part, at thirteen. (Tragically, not only are Hebrew sources rendered inaccessible, but even most of the sophisticated modern English sources are unknown, and unappreciated.)
To build a religion of the future, we need to be knowledgeable about the past and the answers that it provides. Yet, slavish adherence to these is not sufficient. The Ba’al Shem Tov, in his commentary on the first prayer of the Amidah, taught that to create a living tradition, each generation must both receive the beliefs and traditions of the past, and continue to build on these to discover new things within a tradition that also speaks to the present and the future. In that way we ensure that the light will shine not only for us, but for future generations as well.
(FYI, the Hanukkah Blessings are now found on the website, under the services -> we sing -> resources tabs)