Your question is one that the commentaries to the Code of Jewish Law grappled with hundreds of years ago. What they answer is the following: Purim and Chanukah are profoundly different in their celebrations. The Purim story is one of attempted genocide of the entire Jewish nation. The first Hitler was named Haman, who successfully extracted a decree from the ruling monarch to destroy every last Jewish man, woman and child. This was the first attempt at the “final solution”. The miracle of the Purim story was the overturning of that decree and our enemies were destroyed instead. Since the decree was a physical one; one which ordered the physical destruction of the Jews, we celebrate and publicize that miracle in a physical way. Hence, we hold a festive meal with wine and all the fixin’s.
Chanukah, however, was a different type of story. The Hellenist Greeks wanted to swallow the Jews culturally and turn Israel into a Greek vassal state. Although they did not destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, they defiled it and turned it into a pagan Greek temple. Rather than destroying the oil used to light the Temple menorah, they dedicated it to their pagan gods. The Greeks were not interested in physically destroying the Jewish people; they wanted to destroy them spiritually. Rather than destroying the Jewish holy buildings, they tried to obliterate the holiness of those sites. They issued numerous decrees designed to undermine the most essential aspects of Jewish life: banning circumcision, the observance of Shabbat, the Jewish calendar and the study of Torah. Jewish brides were required to submit to the local Greek governors on their wedding nights, in an effort to destroy the genealogical chain of Judaism and the purity of Jewish life, family and morality.
The miracle of the successful Chanukah revolt by the Maccabees ensured the spiritual survival of the Jews. We therefore celebrate in a spiritual way, not with meals. We, rather, celebrate with special prayers, and by lighting candles which represent the menorah – which hints to the light of Torah. They are lit at night to signify that from Chanukah and onwards in our history, during the darkest of times, the light of Torah will illuminate our homes and ensure our survival and continuity.
May you and all the readers be illuminated by the light of the Chanukah candles with joy!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried