SUSAN BRAUNSTEIN (The Jewish Museum, New York): The rabbis associated a miracle with the holiday that when the ancient soldiers came to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem and they lit the menorah that was in the Temple, they only had one cruse of oil to burn for one day, but miraculously it burned for eight, and so that’s why we call it the festival of lights and why we light the Hanukkah lamp. The rabbis going back to Maimonides and earlier felt that the lights of the Hanukkah lamp were sacred.
The rabbis actually did specify a list of materials that were preferable to use for the Hanukkah lamps. Gold and silver, of course, being the best, if you could possibly afford that. Most people couldn’t. If you were poor and couldn’t afford a permanent Hanukkah lamp, you could use an egg shell, or a nut shell, or a potato carved out.
The lamps used in homes for most of the centuries that Hanukkah has been celebrated were actually using oil. And then over time in the 19th century and into the 20th century, candles became more popular for home use. It’s pretty messy to use oil; we’ve tried it.