For non-Jews living in the U.S., Hanukkah is widely regarded as being the biggest Jewish holiday of the year – celebrated on the same scale as Christmas in America. Not knowing much about Hanukkah, it is easy to think of the holiday simply as a “Jewish Christmas.” However, the truth about Hanukkah is that it is really not much like Christmas at all.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25. The holiday comes with many traditions including: celebrating in churches, playing Christmas music, caroling, exchanging Christmas cards and gathering with family for a special Christmas meal. Christmas decorations start going up in November and include Christmas trees, lights and nativity scenes.
One huge aspect of Christmas is Santa Claus and gift giving. Santa Claus is an iconic Christmas figure associated with giving gifts to children. The tradition of gift giving has expanded so much over time, that Christmas and its season have become a major economic factor impacting both Christians and non-Christians worldwide. For example, while Japan has a relatively small Christian population, Christmas decorating and gift giving have become increasingly popular.
Hanukkah, in contrast, celebrates no birth. Rather, this holiday commemorates how the Temple in Jerusalem persisted in the face of oppression. Back in the day, Hellenised rulers dominated the eastern Mediterranean. They wanted the Jews to bow down and adopt pagan Greek practices.
In 167 BC, tensions reached the tipping point as Emperor Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus be built inside the Temple. In addition to that, he decreed a ban on circumcision and ordered ritual pig sacrifices. These actions were sacrilegious for the Jews. Two years later, they overthrew the Hellenised rulers and decided that the Temple needed to be cleansed of pagan sacrileges and consecrated once more.
Hanukkah, or the feast of Hanukkah, celebrates the taking back of the Temple. It lasts for eight days and eight nights, involving the lighting of the eight branches of the menorah, a special candelabrum, and the ninth candle which is used to light the others. The lights are symbolic of a miracle that is said to have occurred during the reconsecration. That is, the light of the Temple’s menorah was kept alive for eight days with only a minuscule amount of olive oil.
Truth be told, Hanukkah is not the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar. In fact, the two most important are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Like “twice-a-year Christians” who only go to Church on Christmas and Easter, “twice-a-year Jews” attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Over time, however, Hanukkah has become increasingly significant as a family holiday in Western countries. In some way, it adds balance for Jews living in places dominated by the popular and commercialized Christmas season. Gift-giving customs of Christmas were integrated sometime in the 1860’s when Rabbi Max Lilienthal of Cincinnati observed how Christmas festivities enthused children towards religion. Consequently, he suggested something similar for Hanukkah.
The children shall have it as a day of rejoicing [in] our religion,” proposed Lilienthal. “Chanukah can be celebrated to delight young and old.
The Jewish calendar is lunar and adds a month every two to three years to its calendar, hence Hanukkah can fall between late November and late December. This year, in a rare occurrence, Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving. While the time of year may seem to be the only thing Hanukkah and Christmas have in common, perhaps all holidays are ultimately a “thanksgiving” of some sort.
By Fatema Biviji