Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Christmas/Channukah Problem

Several years ago, a friend of mine at our synagogue who hails from the southern hemisphere, was educating me on the observance of Channukah in his native country. The conversation was illuminating. (pun absolutely intended!) He reminded me that December in South America is smack dab in the middle of their summer, and as such a much slower time of year. The kids are out of school and many families take the opportunity to embark on vacations. The conclusion was obvious. Channukah is a minor holiday that is barely observed in my friend's country. Shavuot, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. This festival, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, is one of the most sacred on the Jewish calendar. It occurs in the springtime here and the autumn there. In South America it is a time of family gatherings and strong religious observance, in direct contrast to Channukah. So what happened to elevate Channukah in the hearts and minds of North American Jews? A little holiday called Christmas, of course. 

A bit of history is required. Channukah, for all intents and purposes, is the commemoration of a military win. It celebrates the successful victory of a small band of Jewish rebels fighting oppression and assimilation at the hands of the Hellenistic Assyrian army. The leader of this group was a Hasmonean priest named Mattathias. He and his five sons, including Judah the Maccabee, fought back against the creeping tide of assimilation, retook Jerusalem and re-established Jewish sovereignty. When they finally reached the Temple, they cleaned it and rededicated it and held an eight day celebration that was probably a delayed observance of the holiday of Sukkot, which is a major agricultural festival. This observance took hold and was eventually added to the calendar. (Notice there is no mention of oil or a miracle. That comes later!)

The story of the Maccabees is told in two books appropriately titled the First and Second Book of Maccabees. When the Hebrew bible was canonized, the books of the Maccabees were left out for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a political battle that raged between two factions of priests vying for the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. I need to restate this for emphasis. The story of the Maccabbes is nowhere to be found in the Tanach, the Jewish bible. (Those Pharisees and Sadducees were such comical people!!) The Hasmoneans sided with the losing side in this debate and as such were relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history. It was left up to the early church to include poor old Judah and his brothers in the Apocrypha. 

So where is the oil and the miracle and all the fun stuff? Well, that doesn't show up until the Gemara, a part of the Talmud. At this time, the Jewish people were living under Roman rule, and celebrations of military victories were thought to be unwelcome. So, the rabbis concocted the tale of the miracle of the oil. It is a nice story that also serves to bring God into the picture. 

All of this just serves to illustrate how odd an observance Channukah was even to the rabbis of old. They struggled with the holiday, just as we do today. When Jews made their way into the societies of Christian majorities, it became easy to adopt the rituals of Christmas for a holiday that falls around the same time of year. Hence we have the special foods, songs and gift giving galore. But, let us not be fooled. Channukah is minor amongst the observances of my people. It is only the presence of Christmas that has elevated it in stature. 

Now I present all of this historical context not to dampen the joy that many take from Channukah celebrations, but to put into perspective just how difficult it is to be a non-Christian in North America at this time of year. So difficult in fact, that we have allowed a nice little holiday like Channukah to be co-opted by the "holiday machinery". In my line of work, I am constantly asked for a new and exciting Channukah song that might be included in some school's winter celebrations. I am extremely hesitant to offer up a token just so that inclusiveness might be served. (That said, I have very strong opinions about religious material being sung in public schools, but that is a post for another day!) I would like to suggest something radical. I would like to suggest that this year, we look at Channukah in a different context outside of the crazy gift-giving, cooking frenzies and decorations. I would like to ask that all of my Jewish friends take a step back and pause for some real understanding of the holiday; that it is not merely the "Jewish Christmas". And then, I would like to present an interesting alternative celebration. There is a movement afoot that I first noticed on Facebook.
The event is called "Save the Oil for 8 Days-Modern Maccabee Style" and it has as its goal to try and get everyone to function on one tank of gas beginning on the first night of Channukah, December 21st. It is a terrific way to help the planet, conserve oil and remake ourselves into modern Maccabees. 

When we kindle that first light of Channukah, let us remember why we do it. Let us recall our ancestry and let us remember the fight against tyranny and assimilation. Let us recall miracles and light, and let us rededicate ourselves to important causes. Let us live in harmony with our friends of other faiths, letting them enjoy their holidays without feeling the need to adopt them. Chag Channukah Sameach. A happy Channukah to all who observe.


  1. Isn't it ironic that a holiday commemorating a fight against assimilation has become one (in North America, at least, as you so brilliantly pointed out) all about assimilation. i.e. we now strive to make it more like Christmas so that we can feel more part of the greater non-Jewish community around us. We have co-opted the message of independence and made the holiday a celebration of our assimilation. I think we should avoid gift giving purposely to distance it from Christmas.

    Your suggestion for "Save the oil for 8 days - modern Maccabee style" is a good one. Much better than greasy food, gift giving, silly songs and parties a la Christmas.

  2. Dawn, we were supposed to have a Sunday School lesson today with speakers from the ADL, but they cancelled on us so we decided to do a Hanukkah lesson. I printed out your post and used it as a basis for our discussion today. Was very thought provoking!

  3. I am flattered. Thanks for the shout out.