Hanukah: Not the "Jewish Christmas"

All you need to know about Hanukah

A Hanukah display at Little Things

Hanukah starts this Wednesday night, causing some folks to scratch their heads and wonder how it can begin a few days after Thanksgiving when “everyone knows” that Hanukah is the Jewish holiday that corresponds to Christmas. Like many things that everyone knows, that one isn’t true. What exactly is Hanukah and how did it come to be viewed as the Jewish Christmas?

Historical Basis of Hanukah

Hanukah is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you go by how American society – both Jewish and non-Jewish – has turned it into the Jewish Christmas. Hanukah is a military holiday of a sort, commemorating the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid occupation of the land of Israel. Israel had been occupied since the time of Alexander, and Jews had become gradually Hellenized, adopting many Greek customs, words, and practices. As far as we can tell, most were pretty happy with that, and found a balance between assimilation and tradition. With Alexander’s death, though, the world empire got carved up and for many years the land now called Israel was a battle ground between the followers of Ptolemy and those of Seleucus. The Seleucid monarch Antiochus III finally won that battle in 198 BCE.

The Hasmonean revolt took place for a couple decades beginning in 168 BCE, when Antiochus IV, son of the victorious Seleucid mentioned above, issued harsh decrees limiting Jews’ practice of their religion. He outlawed circumcision and observance of the Sabbath – central practices of Judaism – and introduced idols and sacrifice of pigs to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, thereby defiling it. A religious fanatic named Mattathias (Matityahu in Hebrew) and his five sons led the rebellion, much of which was conducted in what we would now call guerilla warfare. They retook the country, repurified the temple, started the Hasmonean dynasty that lasted for about 75 years and – for a time – rolled back some of the assimilationist tendencies of the Jews living there. The main general of the rebellion was Mattathias’s son Judah, who was known as “Ha Maccabee” (the hammer) for his relentlessness in battle. The family has collectively come to be known as the Maccabees in his honor.


Textual Origins of Hanukah

The story of the Hasmonean revolt is told in two books: Maccabees I and II. The books of the Maccabees are part of the group of post-biblical Jewish texts known as the Apocrypha. So, the story of Hanukah is not included in the Jewish Tanakh (bible) although the books of the Maccabees are included in the Catholic bible. Life can be funny that way.

The legend of the miracle of the oil is not told in the books of the Maccabees, but arose later, apparently, and is recorded in the Talmud. The story is that the victorious Maccabees purified the temple, but could find only one small flask of consecrated oil to light the Ner Tamid (eternal light). It would take eight days to get more olive oil, and the flask should only have lasted for one day, so the light would have gone out. Yet, miraculously, the light did not go out and lasted all eight days. That’s why, the story says, we celebrate an eight-day festival at this time of year.

Celebrating Hanukah

Traditional ways to celebrate are:

• Lighting a nine-branched candelabra called a “Hanukiah” or “Menorah” each night, starting with two candles (one for the first night, and the shamash, or “helper” candle, that’s used to light the others) and increasing by one each night, singing blessings specific to the holiday and traditional songs after candle-lighting.

• Playing a game with a special top called a “dreidl” (in Yiddish) or “sivivon” (in Hebrew) that has Hebrew letters on its four sides, standing for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” - a great miracle happened there. The same letters stand for Yiddish words meaning "all", "half", "none" and "put" and the dreidl game is a gambling one, where you ante up coins or nuts or candies and then depending on the spin of the dreidl the spinner gets to add to his/her hoard or has to put more goodies in the pot. My older kids have beautiful silver Israeli dreidls sent to them by my sister who was living in Israel when the older two were born. The last letter is different on Israeli dreidls, because theirs say “A great miracle happened here.”

• Eating foods cooked in oil, to remember the story of the miracle of the oil. Latkes (potato pancakes) are traditional in Ashkenazic (Eastern European Jewish) households. Soufganiyot – jelly donuts – which are the traditional Israeli food.

• Giving “gelt” (Yiddish for money) to children, either in the form of real coins or chocolate ones.


The Jewish Christmas?

What do I mean when I say that Hanukah is a minor holiday and how did it become such a big deal in North America?

First question first. Jews have lots of holidays. That’s sometimes hard for Christians, at least American Christians, to understand. Theoretically Christians have lots of holidays, too, but outside of a Barbara Pym novel you may never hear of people celebrating Michaelmas or St. Swithin’s Day or whatever. Christmas and Easter seem to be it for most Christians I know. Jews, by contrast, have a number of major holidays where we really devote a lot of time and energy to the holiday – we prepare for them in advance; we don’t go to work on the holiday; kids don’t go to school; we occupy ourselves with holiday activities, be they shul-based or home-based.

Hanukah isn’t one of those holidays. Nobody takes a day off of work for Hanukah. Nobody stops doing anything they ordinarily do. They just do a little something extra in the evening – light candles, sing traditional songs, eat certain foods, play certain games.

So, if you’re trying to think of a holiday to compare Hanukah to, it’s not in any sense the “Jewish Christmas.” It doesn’t have that importance in our calendar. Even though it commemorates a military victory, it’s not even the “Jewish Fourth of July,” really, since that tends to be a day not only for special foods (barbecue) and celebratory activities (fireworks), but also one most people don’t work on. It’s a little more than the “Jewish Groundhog Day” I suppose, but not much more. It’s a holiday that is celebrated by Jews worldwide, but in a very low key way.

Well, low key at most times and places. But since Hanukah often occurs in temporal proximity to Christmas (it can start as early as late November or as late as late December) it has been turned into a bigger deal in largely Christian societies.

Personally, I think celebration of neither religious holiday should be a government activity, but the Supreme Court disagrees with me. I always refused to be the “Hanukah Mom” when my kids were little, just because I didn’t want to contribute to the whole Jewish Christmas trope. I always volunteered to come in later on and do a Purim lesson instead. Purim is also a minor holiday, but one that doesn’t try to compete with any Christian ones, and one kids like because of dressing up in costumes, the food, and the tradition of gift-giving (yes, Virginia, Purim is our gift-giving holiday, not Hanukah). I’ve plum run out of preschoolers and kindergartners, and I’ve got a great Purim Mom routine to share (complete with dramatic telling of the story and baking - and eating - of hamentaschen), so let me know if anyone needs a Purim mom this spring.

Dale Rosenberg