December 23, 2008
There is no similarity between Christmas and the Jewish holiday that falls in December, except that both are festive celebrations with lights. All cultures have festivals around the winter solstice, usually involving lights on the darkest days of the year.
Presents on Hanukkah are an American invention, a consolation prize parents give their children for not having Christmas. In Eastern Europe, where most American Jewish families originated, a Hanukkah present might be an orange, a handmade winter garment, or a bowl and raisins and almonds.
Hanukkah is hardly a religious holiday at all, just an excuse to have a party in the winter. There is no special religious service, just a 30-second blessing at home, and lighting candles for eight days. Religious schools teach children the story of Hanukkah and give a party for the children, and many adults throw a party for extended family and friends.
Hanukkah celebrates Jewish resiliency. Around 165 B.C., a tyrant tried to destroy the Jewish people, force them all to worship idols. In a classic guerrilla war, a small group of fighters defeated the tyrant in the last military victory for a Jewish army until the Israeli War for Independence in 1948. The story is found in the Book of Maccabee, which is not even in the Bible. It’s in the Apocrypha.
A small group of Jewish zealots led by Judah Maccabee, son of a priest named Mattathias, who refused to bow to a Greek idol, kept pestering and raiding the enemy, disrupting commerce and stealing weapons, without engaging enemy chariots and heavy armor directly in pitched battles. Finally, the foreign power got tired and went home. The newspapers of the time might have referred to the Maccabees as terrorists, religious fanatics, or radical fundamentalists.
They were all of the above, but they didn’t teach us that in Sunday School. Their enemies were not just foreign idol worshippers. They wanted to cleanse their own country of Jews who had adopted the secular, materialistic ways of Greek civilization. Many of the caravans they raided were owned by Jewish merchants.
When the Maccabees re-occupied Jerusalem, they found the Holy Temple had been defiled by the tyrant. In some versions, they ate pigs in the Temple. Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for dedication, and in the process of purifying and rededicating the Temple, God pulled off a minor miracle, a little magic trick compared to parting the Red Sea.
The Maccabees found only enough special oil to light the Eternal Flame above the Holy Ark for one day. But God made it last 8 days, until new oil was purified and prepared. And that’s why, on Hanukkah, we light a candle on the first day, and one more each day until all eight candles are burning.
Like many Jewish holidays, the story can be summarized, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
The major Hanukkah food is potato pancakes because potatoes are what poor people have in Northeastern Europe in December. There are traditional songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, mostly dumb children’s songs.
And there is a little game the children play with a four-sided top, called a dreydl. Each side has a different Hebrew letter, which are the initials for “A Great Miracle Happened There.” The kids gamble for matches, pennies, or nuts, and the letters tell them they take none, one, half, or all of the pot. This game originated during the Spanish Inquisition, where Jews had to celebrate their rituals in secret. When their lookouts spotted danger coming, they signaled the worshippers, who hid their books and ritual objects, and started playing with a top.
This is what you’ll find in just about every Eastern European Jew’s family celebration. After that, there are infinite variations.
Merry Christmas to all. Hanukkah is, and always has been, a really second-rate imitation. The birth of the son of God is much more inspiring for artists, musicians, ministers, and merchants than a long-burning oil lamp,