Chanukah ain’t Jewish Christmas
(First, there are countless ways to spell Chanukah in English. I’ve chosen this one, but there is not a “correct” spelling unless you’re writing in Hebrew: חֲנוּכָּה)
The month of December is filled with holidays. Obviously, here in the U.S., Christmas comes to mind first. My family has celebrated the non-religious, hopefully less commercialized, version of Christmas. Even before my NPE discovery, I had backed away from the holiday. Christmas, when you get down to it, is supposed to be the celebration of the birth of Christ. I wasn’t comfortable with this since I’ve never believed Jesus was our savior.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my Christmas tree, stockings, songs, and feelings of goodwill and gratitude. I realized, the things I love about the holiday had little to do with celebrating the birth of Christ. People have been bringing evergreen boughs into their homes to remind them of the coming greenery of spring long before Christianity. The idea of Santa Clause and hanging stockings originate in Turkey in the third century surrounding a monk named St. Nicolas who used his wealth to help people less fortunate than himself. While I know caring for those less fortunate is a Christian ideal, it is not solely a Christian belief. And December 25th, well that’s a borrowed date as we’ll see.
The idea of needing light in the middle of the darkest time, the Winter Solstice, is a long-practiced tradition. Many cultures in the world have holidays focused on this theme during this time of the year. The two that come to mind when thinking of Christmas are Germanic/Scandinavian Yule and Roman Saturnalia. The later was a time of feasting, gift-giving, and celebrating the birth of the sun, on — yep, you guessed it December 25th. Yule includes singing, decorating with greenery, and the burning of the Yule log. (If you’re curious about other holidays celebrated around the world during this time, check out my non-exhaustive list below).
My family’s celebration of Christmas was certainly secular. Years ago we settled on the tradition of watching movies all day and eating finger foods. We opened presents, which we tried to limit in number, listened to music, drank hot cocoa. Around lunchtime, we’d pile the coffee table with appetizers: vegetables and dips, gyoza, mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, taquitos, cookies, and anything else that came to mind. We started our tradition off by watching the Lord of the Rings movies. For years, this has been our family’s Christmas.
About four years ago, I decided I wanted to be more mindful of how I celebrated Christmas. My thought process was, this is a Christian holiday and I should not be co-opting it. When I lived in the Soviet Union, I celebrated Father Frost/New Year; basically Christmas without Christ. I decided to build our winter holiday centered more on what I believe, my family moved towards a Yule/New Year/Winter Solstice celebration. With my NPE discovery almost two years ago and my strong connection with Judaism, it seemed natural to include Chanukah in our family winter celebration.
For those of you who don’t know, Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday — almost an afterthought in my mind. Although, I do think its relevance is growing not because it is an “alternative” for Jews to Christmas, but because of the rise of anti-Semitism. More on this in a minute, first let’s do a quick review of Jewish holidays so you can see where Chanukah stands.
First and foremost there’s Shabbat, Friday Sunday to Saturday sundown when Jews celebrate a day for rest, which is the most important holiday. After that, we have the High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Next are the “Festive Holidays” of Passover (marking the exodus from Egypt), Shavuot (celebration of the giving of the Torah to the Jews), and Sukkot (celebrating the fall harvest). Finally, there’s what I refer to as the “Low Holidays” of Chanukah and Purim (I love this Halloween meets Mardi Gras holiday). Yes, there are more (like Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees ), but we’ll limit the list to these. As you can see, Chanukah is low on the list.
So what is Chanukah anyway? Chanukah literally means “rededication.” It is an eight-day holiday commemorating the Maccabees who recaptured the Jewish Temple from the Greeks and rededicated it to God on, yep — you guessed it, December 25th, 165 B.C.E. Now you can see why the Christians settled on this date for Christmas. The story goes, the Maccabees lit the Menorah (which means lamp and has seven branches) but there was only sufficient oil to burn for one day. Miraculously, the lights burned for eight days. Jews in celebration of this miracle light the Hanukkiyah, a candelabra with nine branches, one for each day of the miracle and a Shamash. Shamash, meaning “the helper,” and is lit first and then used to light the other candles.
This is what I would call the “two-cent” version of the story, which mimics the miracle of Christ and gives off a whiff of Christmasness. But, there’s so much more to Chanukah. The details of the Maccabee revolt and its ultimate success are pertinent for Jews today struggling with how to maneuver in today’s challenging environment of growing hate and anti-Semitism.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the Chanukah story. Alexander the Great had conquered much of the known world by the mid-fourth century B.C.E. bringing with him Greek language, culture, and education. The Greeks’ cultural imperialism, the belief their culture was superior and more advanced, permeated throughout their rule. Essentially, the Greeks believed they were civilizing the world, including the Jews. Many, Jews included, adopted Greek ways to appear sophisticated and cultured.
The Hellenistic period lasted for about 300 years. During Greek rule, a group of Jews known as Hellenizers, who adopted some Greek ways began to think some Jewish practices might be outdated and introduced some changes. The Hellenizers essentially wanted to modernize Judaism. Some started to practice “Judaism lite.” In public, they looked like assimilated Greeks but in the privacy of their homes, they adhered to their Jewish faith. Many took Greek names (in addition to their Jewish ones).
The exact dates are a bit in question, let’s say it’s the mid-second century B.C.E. Antiochus IV rules the area, but he’s gotten himself into a pickle. He’s lost a costly war with Egypt and is looking for funds to replenish his coffers. Where else to look but to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Antiochus seizes everything, decrees many Jewish practices punishable by death (such as circumcision, studying the Torah, and following the Sabbath), and requires everyone to worship Zeus. This is where the Chanukah story really starts.
Antiochus’s soldiers travel to Modin (NW of Jerusalem) and gather all of the Jews into the town square. Once everyone is present, the town’s conservative Jewish religious leader Mattathias is asked to sacrifice a pig on an altar for Zeus, which he flatly refuses. Another Jew steps forward to do what’s asked to prevent bloodshed and Mattathias is appalled. As many of you have heard me say before, not all Jews believe in God. Judaism is quite flexible, but there is one thing all Jews may not do — we may not worship idols (and if you believe in God, there is only one). The request by the soldiers is an affront to the one thing Jews must not do.
Mattathias is appalled by this “last straw,” this Jewish complicity in eradicating Jewish traditions. He murders the Jew who stepped forward and the King’s representative. Mattathias cries, “Whoever is for God, follow me!” and flees to the hills with his five sons. The Hellenizers are now forced to choose: do they follow Mattathias and their traditional practices, give up their Judaism, or face death. A Jewish civil war is essentially the beginning of the Chanukah story.
Those who choose to follow Mattathias form an “army” in the woods and take on Antiochus’s soldiers through guerrilla warfare. At the beginning of the fight, the soldiers attack one pocket of Jews in the forest on Shabbat knowing it would violate the Sabbath for the Jews to defend themselves. The group of Jews was slaughtered into order not to desecrate Shabbat.
Mattathias declared to his followers, “If any man comes against us on the Sabbath day, we shall fight against him and not all die as our brothers did in their hiding places.” While not everyone agreed with this, we’re Jews, it is a precedent now followed. Jewish scholars have argued over the centuries it is better to violate one Shabbat so you may observe many more Shabbattot. This is why when the Israelis were attacked on the holiest of days, Yom Kippur, they fought back.
Mattathias and his sons became known as the Maccabees (or Hammer), due to their military successes. Unfortunately, Mattathias dies before the rebellion is successful. His son Judah however eventually leads the Jews to the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem and to freedom (for a short time). Now, the traditional Chanukah story starts here.
When you light the Hanukkiyah, you are supposed to put it in your window to remind the world of the miracle of Chanukah and how proud you are to be a Jew. This year, some Jews were scared to place their Hanukkiyah in such a public place. In 2018, there was the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg where 11 were murdered and 6 were injured. In 2019, there were the shootings at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego where one person was murdered and three injured; the attack on the Kosher supermarket in Jersey City where three people were murdered; and the knife attack in Rabbi Chaim’s home on Chanukah which wounded five people. What’s unimaginable about these horrific events is they are a tiny fraction of anti-Jewish crimes in 2019. There were thousands of cases across the U.S. where Jewish property was vandalized and Jews were harassed and assaulted. In New York, with its large portion of Hasidic Jews (Jews who outwardly look like Jews), violent attacks occur almost daily.
So what does the Chanukah story teach us?
As Jews, we must participate in society on our terms. When forced with an affront to Judaism, like the increased anti-Semitic behavior we are seeing, we must make a choice. When will you take a stand? Where is your line in the sand?
To combat this hate, I believe we must display our Judaism — we must not hide. In hiding, we become an unknown thing and it is fear of the strange and unfamiliar that can spark people to act in unthinkable ways. Our beauty as a society is that we are not all the same and having religious liberties in this country affords us the possibility to be different. We must celebrate our differences. We have an obligation to our past, to honor it and make our way proudly in the present so our children may hold their heads high and be proud to be a Jew.
P.S. If you’re curious how I incorporated Chanukah into our winter holiday, I purchased a chest with eight small drawers and numbered them. With Judaism being a religion of community/family and doing/action, I decided to give my children experiences. The first drawer was filed with Gelt (chocolate coins) and dreidels to experience the traditional game of Chanukah. One drawer had coins for charity representing volunteering at a local charity, the rest of the drawers contained small items representing other family and community outings such as small carabineers for doing a ropes course and tiny trees to represent planting trees on Tu BiShvat.
WINTER HOLIDAYS AROUND THE WORLD
- Las Posadas (Mexico-Christian)
- Orthodox Christmas
- St. Nicholas Day (Christian)
- Epiphany/Three Kings Day (Christian)
- Yule (pre-Christian Scandinavia)
- Saturnalia (Ancient Romans)
- Soyal (Hopi Indians)
- Yalda (Zoroastrian)
- St. Lucia Day (Sweden)
- Dongzhi Festival (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans)
- New Year (former Soviet republics)
- Omisoka (Japanese)
- Bodhi Day (Buddhist)
- Diwali (Indian)
- Kwanzaa (Pan African)
- Boxing Day (Australian, Canadian, English, Irish)