Tonight was the last night in which eight candles are lit on the menorah as tomorrow (the 9th) is the last day of Hanukkah (which ends at sunset). It’s also known as the Festival of Lights, as it is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem following Judah Maccabee‘s victory over the Seleucid Empire.
According to Rabbinic tradition, the victorious Maccabees could only find a small jug of oil that had remained uncontaminated by virtue of a seal, and it only contained enough oil to sustain the menorah for one day. However, it miraculously lasted for eight days, which was enough time to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
Hanukkah can also be celebrated by singing prayers and hymns such as Maoz Tzur, Psalms, etc.; exchanging presents; and children are also sometimes encouraged to give tzedakah (or “charity”) for at least one of the nights, in lieu of presents for themselves.
This year, Hanukkah actually coincided with the Zen Buddhist Rohatsu Sesshin which is usually held from the 1st to the 8th of December. During the session, many practitioners stay up all night before the 8th in intensive meditation. This is because the 8th (today) was Bodhi Day (also Jodo-e, etc), or Enlightenment Day, for many Buddhists. It is a day which commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment. As Venus rose in the sky on the early morning of December 8th, Siddartha Gotama (also known as Shakyamuni Buddha) experienced enlightenment at the foot of a bodhi tree (fiscus tree of the genus ficus religiousa, or sacred fig) in Bodhgaya.
As a day of remembrance and meditation, Bodhi Day may also sometimes appear as if it is the Buddhist version of Christmas. In some Buddhist homes you are likely to find a bodhi tree (fiscus tree/sacred fig). Beginning on Bodhi Day, these trees are decorated with multi-colored lights, strung with beads to symbolize the way all things are united, and hung with three shiny ornaments to represent the Three Jewels – The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
Sometimes you may also find colored lights which are strung about the home to recognize the day of enlightenment. They are multi-colored to symbolize the many pathways to enlightenment. The lights are turned on each evening beginning on December 8th and for the following 30 days. A candle is also lit for these thirty days to symbolize enlightenment.
A meal of rice and milk is significant on this holiday, because it is what Sujata offered to the Buddha upon his awakening to help him regain strength. Sometimes cookies are made in the shape of a tree to symbolize the bodhi tree, or of the leaves of the bodhi tree. Fortunately, the leaves are heart shaped, so its easy to find a heart shaped cookie cutter from Valentine’s Day.
However, the Buddha’s enlightenment is also observed at different times in other Buddhist traditions. Such as some Theravada Buddhist communities usually commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing into paranirvana on the same day, called Vesak Puja (which already happened May 21st). Tibetan Buddhists also observe those same three events of Buddha’s life at the same time, during Saga Dawa Duchen (which was May 27th).