Christmas and Chanukah

After graduating from Arizona State University, I have been out of luck in job searching. I started feeling depressed and hopeless. One day, I found that ASU Osher Lifelong Learning Institute would provide a special lecture “Chanukah vs. Christmas in a Battle of Truth vs. False: Which Holiday Wins the Seasonal Championship or Do They Fight to a Draw ?” by Rabbi David Davis.

“That’s gonna be a interesting session! I have to go!” I was very excited with my thoughts that I could have Dr. Davis’ great lecture again, which was the most inspiring lecture I’ve ever had at Arizona State University (ASU), and he also did not disappoint me this time.

Although the point of lecture was a change in the situation of Christmas and Chanukah, I got a message in the tradition of Christmas and Chanukah: Live on hope even when you are in the dark, then, a miracle will happen to you.

From my notes: Think about Christmas and Chanukah

Christmas and Chanukah today

Christmas tree in a livingroom

I am not a Christian, yet I decorate Christmas tree and buy Christmas gifts.

The original meaning of Christmas changed over time. What do you think about Christmas? You may think Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Merchandizing, Giving, Receiving, Birth of Jesus, Food, and so on. What would you say if someone asked you what is the most important Christian holiday? Christmas or Easter is the most likely answer if you are a Christian.

When you think about Christmas, you can think of Christmas in a commercial way. The latest studies seem to indicate that more people think about Christmas, a national holiday, in a secular way than in a religious way. Unfortunate, but it’s true. Christmas has really become more about shopping and Christmas sales. How often do we think about the birth of Jesus?

Chanukah

We all agree that the two most important holidays in a Christian calendar are Christmas and Easter. Then, what would Jews list if they are asked what is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar? Jewish people might say, “Pesach (Passover), Yom Kippur, Shavu’ot, Rosh Hashanah, and so on.” (It is not Chanukah. Chanukah is a minor holiday in the Jewish tradition.)

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the three most important holidays, so called three working festivals, are: Passover, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot. These are agriculture holidays where people actually went to the temple to make sacrifices and celebrate.

Christmas is always December 24/25th even though Jesus was not born on that day. On the other hand, Chanukah can be in November or all the way into December. (Same as Rosh Hashanah. It can be in September or in early October. To solve this problem Rabbis add an additional month seven times in a nineteen year cycle, roughly every three years.)

Evolution of Chanukah in the Bible: When does Chanukah begin?

With the coming of Alexander the Great brought Hellenism into every part of the world. Hellenism can be loosely seen as an introduction of Western thought and was very appealing to many members of the Jewish community. As a matter of fact, some of them were so excited about Greek tradition that they stopped circumcision (The most important sign of covenant). After the time of Alexander the Great, the Greek empire was divided by two generals (Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, the Seleucid Empire in the east). The Seleucid dynasty used a drastic way to control their region: they destroyed the people who had a different tradition and the religion (Jews were persecuted).

A rebellion took place between 168 and 165 BCE by a family of priests known as the Hasmonean’s or commonly referred to as the Macabees.

A relatively untrained guerrilla army to go against the Greek army is a little crazy, but they won! A great miracle happened here (in Israel). The Hasmonean dynasty is also called Maccabee. Macabee in Hebrew can be translated in two ways: “the hammer” and an acronym for the Torah verse that was the battle-cry of the Macabees, “Mi chamocha ba’elim YHWH”, “Who is like our God.” The following year, after the battle was over, in 164 B.C.E., the holiday Chanukah was created.

They recorded this story in two books called “1 and 2 Maccabee” which were originally written in Hebrew. The Hebrew texts 1 and 2 Maccabee are lost, but they were also written in Greek. Living in Greek society, people learn other than the Hebrew language. The Hebrew story was translated in Greek. Why wasn’t the history of the Chanukah put into the Hebrew Bible?

Because the story of the Macabees was written in Greek it was not included in the canonization of the Hebrew Bible because nothing in Greek was permitted in the text.

The story is referred to as eight days of miracles: Where did the story come from?

Maccabees came to the temple. They found a cruse of oil, which was thought to be enough for one day.

The legend of the cruse of oil burning, not for one but for eight days, is not found in the books of first and 2nd Macabees. One has to turn to the Talmud to find the legend depicted. This was written approximately 500 CE .

The last night of Chanukah; Menorah with all 8...

The last night of Chanukah; Menorah with all 8 candles burning. I used a combination of a ceiling facing strobe and a LED flashlight to create the shadow on the wall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another fascinating Chanukah story

100 years after the victory of Hasmoneans dynasty, much of the dynasty had become corrupt. Because of the corruption, the importance of Chanukah was diminished and not observed by the Jewish community. Chanukah’s first resurrection was the time when Jews stood up against Roman Empire for fairness, for god, and for religion.

The reason Chanukah is celebrated for 8 days is because they emulated the holiday of Sukkot, one of the three important festivals, but not because of the cruse of oil burned for 8 days. The 8 days concept came from emulating the traditional Jewish holiday which is in the bible.

Now turn to Christianity

The story of the birth of Jesus is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. According to tradition, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a small town outside of the city of Jerusalem. Scholars have believed that the family of Jesus traveled to Jerusalem in order to be counted as part of the census required by Roman law. In relatively recent times, scholars have questioned in what season of the year this pilgrimage would have taken place. Many Christian theologians believe that this journey would have taken place in the spring of the year rather than in the winter months. It is suggested by some scholars that the observance of the birth of Jesus in December was taken over from pagan religions during the time of the winter solstice. Some scholars have even gone as far as to say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem outside of Nazareth rather than the Bethlehem outside of Jerusalem.

Conclusion

  1. Chanukah once considered a minor holiday has become important to the modern Jewish community in part because of the secularization of Christmas. It could be suggested that for Jews, Chanukah has become the Jewish “Christmas” with an emphasis upon light in the darkest season of the year as well as the hope for all humans to be free as demonstrated by the original Macabees.
  2. Although Christmas still remains a major holiday in the Christian calendar, the secular input has diminished the sacredness of the presumed birth of Jesus.

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