US President Barack Obama on Saturday night congratulated Jews around the world on the first night of Hanukkah, the festival of lights.

“Michelle and I send our warmest wishes to all those celebrating Hanukkah around the world,” Obama said in a statement. “This Hanukkah season we remember the powerful story of the Maccabees who rose up to liberate their people from oppression. Upon discovering the desecration of their Temple, the believers found only enough oil to light the lamp for one night. And yet it lasted for eight.”

Obama called on people of all faiths to recognize their common aspirations. “This holiday season,” he said, “let us give thanks for the blessings we enjoy, and remain mindful of those who are suffering. And let us reaffirm our commitment to building a better, more complete world for all.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lit a menorah and wished “the entire house of Israel” a happy Hanukkah.

“Confronting those who wish to extinguish the great light that the Jewish people are kindling, the State of Israel stands strong and will continue to be the source of a steadfast light for the Jewish people in all generations,” he said.

Jews the world over ushered in the eight-day festival Saturday evening, lighting the first candles of ceremonial lamps that symbolize triumph over oppression.

In Israel, families gathered after sundown for the lighting, eating traditional snacks of potato pancakes and doughnuts and exchanging gifts.

Lighting Hanukkah candles in Jerusalem (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

Lighting Hanukkah candles in Jerusalem (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

Local officials lit candles set up in public places, while families displayed the nine-candle lamps, called menorahs, in their windows or in special windproof glass boxes outside.

Hanukkah commemorates the Jewish uprising in the second century B.C. against the Greek-Syrian kingdom, which had tried to impose its culture on Jews and adorn the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem with statues of Greek gods.

The holiday lasts eight days because according to tradition, when the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, a single vial of oil, enough for one day, burned miraculously for eight.

For many Jewish people, the holiday symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.

Many Jews, observant and secular, light a candle each night to mark the holiday.

Oily foods are eaten to commemorate the oil miracle, hence the ubiquitous fried doughnuts and potato pancakes, known as latkes.

In Israel, children play with four-sided spinning tops, or dreidels, decorated with the letters that form the acronym “A great miracle happened here.” Outside of Israel, the saying is “A great miracle happened there.” Israeli students get time off from school for the holiday, when families gather each night to light the candles, eat and exchange gifts.

Hanukkah — which means dedication — is one of the most popular holidays in Israel, and has a high rate of observance.

In Ohio, the first public candle lighting on Saturday will be by Holocaust survivor Abe Weinrib, who turns 100 next week. Weinrib, who will light the first candle on a 13-foot public menorah at Easton Town Center in Columbus, said his biggest triumph was surviving the Holocaust, the Nazi campaign to eliminate Jews in Europe.

Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, center, lights the first candle celebrating the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, on Grzybowski square in Warsaw, Saturday. (photo credit: AP/Alik Keplicz)

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, center, lights the first candle celebrating the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, on Grzybowski square in Warsaw, Saturday. (photo credit: AP/Alik Keplicz)

Weinrib told The Columbus Dispatch newspaper that he was arrested while working in Polish factories owned by his uncle when he was in his 20s. He spent six years imprisoned in camps, including the notorious Auschwitz.

In New York City, Jews are celebrating the holiday’s start with the ceremonial lighting of a 32-foot-tall menorah at the edge of Central Park.

Dignitaries, rabbis and a big crowd are expected Saturday evening for the ceremony. The steel menorah weighs 4,000 pounds and stands tall enough that organizers will need an electric utility crane to reach the top. It has real oil lamps, protected from the wind by glass chimneys.

A large menorah is also ready to be lit on the lawn in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The menorah is being put up by the Philadelphia Lubavitch Center, a group dedicated to Jewish education.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott celebrated the beginning of Hanukkah with a menorah-lighting ceremony in his office at the state Capitol in Tallahassee. He was joined by a rabbi from the northwest Florida branch of the Chabad Lubavitch outreach organization.

“The story of Hanukkah reminds us that confidence in one’s identity and hope for the future are powerful forces that cannot be defeated – even in the darkest of times. Hanukkah is also a time to reiterate our support for the people of Israel,” Scott said, adding that he and his wife are “keeping our friends in Israel in our prayers for a future of peace.”