The Real Hanukkah: More than a 'Jewish Christmas' | Opinion

The holiday of Hanukkah (which began this year on Thursday night, December 10th) looms in the popular imagination as a quirky sort of "Jewish Christmas," an overlapping occasion for gift-giving, gluttony and—pandemics permitting—joyous family get-togethers. Though the two seasonal celebrations do share some common elements, a more authentic understanding of the eight-day Hebraic festival reveals dramatically distinctive themes.

Yes, both holidays commemorate events in the vicinity of Jerusalem: in the case of Hanukkah, the rededication of the Temple in 165 BC and for Christmas, of course, the birth of Jesus more than 150 years later. Both festivals emphasize the gift of light in the darkest of earthly seasons, as the multi-colored bulbs of modern Christmas decorations and the flickering candles of the traditional Hanukkah menorah readily attest. Christians indulge in celebratory food and drink, like the plum pudding glorified in Dickens's A Christmas Carol, or modern candy canes and egg nog, while Jews famously gorge themselves on tasty fried potato pancakes (latkes) or, in the Sephardic tradition, jelly donuts known as sufganiyot. Most strikingly, the two holidays provide an occasion for lavish gift-giving, though in both religious traditions (and especially in the case of Hanukkah) that's a modern innovation rather than an ancient, sacred tradition.

While the story of Christmas is straightforward and easy for anyone even vaguely aware of the life and ministry of Jesus to comprehend, Hanukkah's origins tell a complicated tale that's often distorted by well-meaning ecumenicists who seek to make the Jewish festivities more Christmas compatible. It's flat-out wrong, for instance, to describe Hanukkah as a celebration of religious liberty or tolerance: the Maccabees, who liberated and purified the Temple in the second century before Jesus, identified as rigorously orthodox, uncompromising upholders of Jewish law and sacred tradition. They began their epic struggle against fellow Jews who had taken on an alien, Hellenistic worldview in hopes of assimilating into the sophisticated Greek civilization that surrounded them. Only later did the Syro-Greek kingdom of Antiochus take sides in the civil war and seek to suppress basic Jewish rites like Sabbath observance and circumcision.

In prayer books over the last two millennia, only one passage specifically refers to the miraculous victory the Maccabees won in protecting their Mosaic law from the "modernizing" influence of faithless reformers. The Al HaNissim formulation ("On the Miracles"), inserted in daily prayers each day of Hanukkah, thanks God for delivering "the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, the sinners into the hands of those who engaged in Your Torah; You made yourself a great and holy name in Your world, and for Your people Israel You made great redemption and salvation as this very day."

In other words, the Hanukkah holiday provides an element almost entirely missing from the Christmas story: plentiful bad guys, bent on destroying the Jewish people (part of a long, still-flourishing tradition devoted to that purpose). The means of destruction remembered in the "festival of lights" involved the pollution of the holy Temple with darkness of idol worship of alien gods.

This more complete comprehension of Hanukkah (the Hebrew name for the holiday means "dedication," not "liberation") makes it less kid friendly and, alas, poorly equipped to compete with the charms of Christmas, especially with enchanting modern accretions like Santa Claus and lovingly decorated fir trees. There's also the inconvenient fact that, counterposed to the most important and emotionally resonant Christian holiday, Hanukkah ranks as a minor festival, with none of the restrictions on work that characterize the Sabbath and other holidays specified in the Torah—the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, canonized several centuries before the events that Hanukkah honors.

Hanukkah decorations are seen on the Upper West Side on December 08, 2020 in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty

Growing up in a proudly Jewish home at a time that our city (San Diego) boasted only a tiny community of co-religionists that represented much less than 1 percent of the population, I used to fret over the fact that Hanukkah offered such a feeble alternative to the sentimental, ubiquitous allure of the Christmas traditions that all my Christian friends enjoyed. I remember speaking with my late mother about how much easier our Jewish commitment would seem if, through some calendrical manipulation, a more formidable holiday—like Passover, season of our liberation, for instance—could serve as the Judaic alternative to all the Yuletide magnificence. Sleigh bells, nutcrackers, reindeer in the sky, nativity scenes and soul-stirring entertainments like It's A Wonderful Life have, alas, no Hanukkah equivalents.

Today, however, I've come to recognize the appropriate counter-messaging built deep into the Hanukkah holiday's design, and appreciate the argument that every aspect of our tradition ultimately serves some permanent purpose. Hanukkah is not meant to be a universal holiday—it's unquestionably particularist, celebrating the stubborn, age-old insistence of our separate people to maintain its distinctive, and occasionally peculiar, ways and customs. For children as well as for adults, the underlying theme involves the courage to be different, to resist ephemeral trends and fashions, no matter how appealing.

The Al HaNissim prayer also thanks God for delivering "the many into the hands of the few," announcing that Judaism's survival doesn't depend on global popularity contests. In the same way, the "miracle of the oil" emphasizes that the Jewish insistence on standing aside from the inclinations of the moment (Hellenism, anyone?), doesn't doom us to long-term irrelevance. The small cruse of oil with which the Maccabean rebels rekindled the great candelabrum at the rededicated Temple lasted for a startling eight days; so too the handful of Jewish people dedicated to our timeless faith have illogically outlasted all the more numerous and powerful nations surrounding us.

Today, with a reborn Israel representing an even more obvious miracle than eight days of unexpected light, and with an approaching deliverance from the COVID-19 nightmare providing Jews, Christians and all humanity with special reason for seasonal gratitude, may we celebrate both December holidays with authenticity and appreciation, welcoming their shared theme of promised light after long darkness.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.