Jewish families are delighted that, for once, Chanukah falls on the start of winter break. We will kindle our first candle on Sunday night, Dec. 18. It is a rare treat that our kids can be off from school for the holiday. School is always out, of course, for Christian kids and their holidays, but for religious minorities that is seldom the case. In our family, as we light our candles each night to celebrate the miracle of the holiday, we will pray for the coming miracle where every religious minority will have sanctioned days off to celebrate their holidays.
There is also a downside to the blessing of Chanukah happening during winter vacation. Having eight nights of celebration means that the last night — when the entire Chanukah menorah is lit up — will be Dec. 25. The danger here is that, unavoidably, we will see goodhearted people eager to connect Chanukah to Christmas.
Sure, there may be a couple of similarities. Chanukah is the Jewish festival of lights and the celebration of a miracle. One might therefore be tempted to draw corresponding conclusions, however farfetched. Festivals of light around winter solstice long predate monotheism. It has always been a natural human response to the shortest, darkest days of the year. The Chanukah miracle itself happened as Jews rededicated the Jerusalem Temple to Jewish worship (Chanukah means dedication) from Greek pagan worship. A single surviving jar of oil was found to rekindle the seven-branched Great Menorah, barely enough for that first night of festivities. Instead, as the story goes, it lasted all eight celebratory nights. One might surmise that as everyone still celebrated the ancient solstice’s festival of lights, our religious leaders reframed it to become a sanctioned Jewish holiday.
Why did we rededicate our Temple then? Because we had just defeated the Greek invaders in a brutal, drawn-out war. Chanukah commemorates a military victory, the triumph of a religiously oppressed minority defeating the mighty Greek army through ruthless, guerrilla-style warfare. It’s Jewish Independence Day. It’s about claiming one’s unique identity and refusing to be assimilated into the annihilating collective of a foreign empire. In short, it’s not Christmas!
Not only is Chanukah not remotely like Christmas, but also trying to roll Chanukah into Christmas is the kind of assimilation attempt the Jewish holiday invites its celebrants to rail against.
This year, Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa follow each other. I pray that such convergence might serve in smoothing the path to mutual respect and support for each of our distinctive communities. May we celebrate our uniqueness as sacred expressions of the One Presence that is the Source of all.
Read more of the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2022 issue.