On Tuesday evening Jews all over the world will light chanukiot, the 8 branched candelabra used to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It commemorates the regaining of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, and its rededication after the occupying Seleucids had defiled it while imposing Hellenic culture over its empire, prohibiting any other religions. The story of the successful revolt by a small group of pious Jews against the large military power of its day has a touch of the miraculous, and sure enough the narratives first found in the apocryphal first two Books of Maccabees have evolved in their retelling, well beyond the original event.
The dark threads of the story are eclipsed by the reframing in the Talmud, which saw Chanukah as less of a human story of oppression and guerrilla warfare, and more as a demonstration of the divine presence in history. So today we celebrate the miracle of oil staying alight for 8 days rather than one, and we eat foods cooked in oil and play games of chance that refer to the miracle, we give presents each night and generally make merry with friends and family, and think very little of the origin of the rebellion against assimilation with the dominant power.
The date of Chanukah – 25th Kislev – moves around the calendar a little but is always around Christmas. And the date is not the only similarity. Both are festivals rooted in pagan winter solstice where lighting the surrounding darkness is central. Both use tree symbolism – the Chanukiah is based on the Temple Menorah, which bible describes using botanical terms – clearly a Tree of Life, while Christmas uses evergreens – holly, ivy, fir trees – to proclaim Everlasting Life. Both stories are set in times of oppression – the Seleucid Empire and the Roman one, and both embed hope that human oppression is vanquished by divine activity. Both signal God’s presence in the world and both stories have a mythic quality of redemption.
And there are other similarities. In modern times the minor post-biblical festival of Chanukah has taken on some less wholesome aspects of Christmas in a bid to compete for Jewish attention. Both now struggle against commercialisation overpowering their religious message, both become overindulgent. On Chanukah the ‘gelt’ that began as a way to give children small change to use when playing dreidl quickly grew into a present every evening, as more assimilated communities noticed the joy that Christmas presents brought. Chocolate coins took over. What can you do when your child looks at all the glittering baubles with awe and desire? The festival marking rejecting the dominant culture has assimilated it perfectly. As my young son said to his friend when discussing their different Decembers – “What? ONLY ONE night of Christmas? Poor you”
This article first published in the London Evening Standard on 11th December 2017