The Yiddish word shpiel literally means "play," and as it is not uncommon for a Chanukah celebration to include a reenactment of the Maccabean Revolt, the question as to which account of the event one ought to present is a legitimate one. I and II Maccabees both report on the same historical episode. There are also elements of the story which emerge only in later literature, e.g. the Mishnah and Gemara. It is affirmed in the Mishnah that it is not permissible to fast on any of the days of Chanukah; thus, despite its secondary status as a "non-Mosaic" feast, it enjoys nevertheless the status of a proper chag (feast).
As Chanukah quickly approaches, let us examine the sitz im leben (historical backdrop) of the Judaism of that era, up to and including 164 BCE. Within Judaism, there was a tension between the traditionalist Jewish element and those who had come under the allure of Rome. The Maccabees (aka Hasmoneans), who led the rebellion against Seleucid (Greek) Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV, were ironically of the sect most comfortable with being subjugated (though preferring Roman dominance to Greek).
I Maccabees - A Hasmonean Perspective
"1 Maccabees" is the Chanukah shpiel written from the perspective of the Hasmoneans, who sought an alliance with the Romans in order to defeat the Greeks. Notable in this account is that it presents the entire revolt from beginning to end, i.e. 175 to 134 BCE, praising Mattathias' family, particularly his sons, Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan Apphus, and Simon Thassi, and Simon's son, John Hyrcanus throughout. There is not one mention of Hashem or His hand in the victory in the account.
II Maccabees - A Traditionalist Perspective
II Maccabees is much more religiously oriented than I Maccabees. This version of the event covers a tighter window, i.e. 180 to 161 BCE, and informs us that the first Chanukah celebration, i.e. "Feast of Dedication," was that year's Sukkot celebration (Feast of Tabernacles) delayed due to the "abomination of desecration" - the slaughter of swine on the Temple altar on the part of the Seleucid Greeks. This is why the celebration is eight days in length.
Just a few centuries later, despite succumbing to two more foreign conquests, we find that Jerusalem is still almost completely unhellenized. When Titus sacks Jerusalem in 70 CE, he finds that no one can understand him in Greek. Josephus is recruited to translate to Aramaic for him, since Jerusalem's Jewish population has so effectively resisted Hellenization!
Note that the Romans were still speaking Greek at this time (Latin started as a dialect of Greek, developing into a separate language later). Even Josephus himself, a close friend of Titus, describes his Greek as lacking.
יוסף בן מתתיהו, מלחמות היהודים, ו':ב':א'
(1) Τίτος δὲ τοῖς μὲν σὺν αὐτῷ στρατιώταις κατασκάπτειν προσέταξε τοὺς θεμελίους τῆς Ἀντωνίας καὶ τῇ δυνάμει πάσῃ ῥᾳδίαν τὴν ἄνοδον εὐτρεπίζειν, Αὐτὸς δὲ τὸν Ἰώσηπον παραστησάμενος: ἐπέπυστο γὰρ ἐπ' ἐκείνης τῆς ἡμέρας, Πανέμου δ' ἦν ἑπτακαιδεκάτη, τὸν ἐνδελεχισμὸν καλούμενον ἀνδρῶν ἀπορίᾳ διαλελοιπέναι τῷ θεῷ καὶ τὸν δῆμον ἐπὶ τούτῳ δεινῶς ἀθυμεῖν: λέγειν τῷ Ἰωάννῃ πάλιν ἐκέλευσεν ἃ καὶ πρότερον, ὡς εἰ καί τις αὐτὸν ἔρως κακὸς ἔχοι τοῦ μάχεσθαι, προελθόντι μεθ' ὅσων βούλεται πολεμεῖν ἐξείη δίχα τοῦ συναπολέσθαι τήν τε πόλιν καὶ τὸν ναὸν αὐτῷ, μηκέτι μέντοι μιαίνειν τὸ ἅγιον μηδὲ εἰς τὸν θεὸν πλημμελεῖν, παρεῖναι δ' αὐτῷ τὰς ἐπιλελοιπυίας θυσίας ἐκτελεῖν δι' ὧν ἂν ἐπιλέξηται Ἰουδαίων. Καὶ ὁ Ἰώσηπος, ὡς ἂν εἴη μὴ τῷ Ἰωάννῃ μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῖς πολλοῖς ἐν ἐπηκόῳ, τά τε τοῦ Καίσαρος διήγγελλεν ἑβραίζων.1
Josephus, Jewish Wars 6:2:1
(1) And now Titus gave orders to his soldiers that were with him to dig up the foundations of the tower of Antonia, and make him a ready passage for his army to come up. While he himself had Josephus brought to him: (for he had been informed that on that very day, which was the seventeenth day of Panemus [Tamuz], the sacrifice, called the daily sacrifice had failed, and had not been offered to God, for want of men to offer it: and that the people were grievously troubled at it:) and commanded him to say the same things to John, that he had said before: that “If he had any malicious inclination for fighting, he might come out, with as many of his men as he pleased, in order to fight, without the danger of destroying either his city, or temple: but that he desired he would not defile the temple, nor thereby offend against God. That he might, if he pleased, offer the sacrifices which were now discontinued, by any of the Jews whom he should pitch upon.” Upon this Josephus stood in such a place where he might be heard, not by John only, but by many more; and then declared to them what Cæsar had given him in charge: and this in the Hebrew language.
The Miracle of the Oil
The miracle of the oil is not mentioned in either of the books of Maccabees, but it does get recorded in the Talmud (Bavli), an early source reflecting an oral transmission history which far predates its written format. This is the element which garners the central focus in the halakhic texts.
The same is echoed by the Rishonim, e.g., by Rav Sa'adia Gaon, the Rambam, the Maran Beis Yosef, and Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (Rokeach).
To Answer the Question...
Admittedly, the reason for the festival of Chanukah being eight days in length is probably less associated with the miracle of the oil and more owing to the fact that the Maccabean Revolt concluded too late for the celebration of Sukkot. As mentioned above, the first Chanukah (Feast of Dedication) was actually a modified Sukkot festival, delayed due to Jewish worship having been outlawed prior to the revolt. Since Sukkot lasts 8 days, so also did that delayed observance of it which came to be the annual festival of Chanukah. Thus, depicting the events of that Revolt is certainly an element of our celebration which is deserving of our attention. The account from II Maccabees feels more "Jewish" to me, but read them both and take your pick... or weave the two together.
Our great Sages, however, have made the candle lighting the central focus of our celebration, and have anchored this tradition to the Miracle of the Oil, and so also this should be included in out celebration. Andrea Olkin has put together an excellent sefaria source sheet on why the candles (or lamps) should be lit in the front window of one's home. While we're on the subject of the oil... frying up some latkes and spanj/sufganiyot5 are not bad traditions either. As shpiel has a second meaning not mentioned in the introduction: another sense of the word play, i.e. to play a game... so spinning the sevivon (dreidl) completes the whole experience: shpiel... Chanukkiah... gnosh... shpiel... times 8!
- The original Aramaic text of Josephus's works has been lost. As all that remains of them is the Greek translation (and translations into other languages made subsequently therefrom), the presented text is supplied from http://www.biblical.ie/page.php?fl=josephus/War/JWG6#02.
- The original Aramaic text of Josephus's works has been lost. As all that remains of them is the Greek translation (and translations into other languages made subsequently therefrom), the presented text is supplied from http://www.biblical.ie/page.php?fl=josephus/Antiquities/AJGk20#11.
- This passage is also cited in b. Shabbat 21b:10-22a:5
- English translation rendered by present author.
- Spanj is the name for Libyan doughnuts, the Sephardic version of sufganiyot (jelly donuts).