The celebration of Chanukah today is based on the conflation of two stories: one historical, and one legendary. The historical events on which the holiday is based can be found in I and II Maccabees, two books contained in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha, which means “hidden writings,” refers to books considered for inclusion in the Hebrew Biblical canon, but ultimately rejected.Chanukah celebrates the victory of religious and cultural freedom. This independence was won by the Jews through a revolt led by the Maccabees against the Syrians and King Antiochus in 165 B.C.E. Israel was under Syrian control at that time, and Syria had been forced to accept the Greeks’ way of life - their religion, political structure, customs and culture - by Alexander the Great before his death. King Antiochus, one of Alexander’s generals, planned to Hellenize the Jews as well- they were not permitted to observe Jewish holidays, study Torah, or celebrate their life occasions. Although some Jews were enamored with Hellenism and fully assimilated into Greek culture, many felt they had no choice but to revolt. A priest named Mattathias and his five sons (who took the name “Maccabees”), started the rebellion. Vastly outnumbered, the Maccabees emerged victorious, recaptured and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the Syrian-Greek army. The name “Chanukah” means “dedication,” honoring this event.
The legend of Chanukah comes from the Talmud, the collection of Oral Law in Judaism. The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat 21b, tells the story of the Maccabees having reclaimed the Temple and their desire to kindle its eternal light. However, they found only one small jar of oil, sufficient to burn for only one day. But miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days - thus, Chanukah is an eight-day holiday.
Although today Chanukah is one of the most well known Jewish celebrations in North America, for the majority of Jewish history it was a very minor holiday. Because it is not biblically based, it did not originally share the status of the other major Jewish holidays. Only in the late 1800s did Chanukah take hold in North America, thanks to a small group of young Jews in Philadelphia who wanted a more thriving Jewish holiday life.
Because of Chanukah’s temporal proximity to Christmas, Chanukah has grown in popularity and observance. (Chanukah also borrows the custom of gift giving directly from Christmas.) It is important to note, however, that Christmas and Chanukah are linked not only on the calendar, but also in their origins. Both festivals emerged as a response to the winter solstice in ancient times. A fixation with light in the dead of winter is understandable. We can imagine, thousands of years ago, the religious and psychological questions and fears that arose in the midst of the encompassing darkness of December. The shortest daylight period of the year, the cold weather, and the emotional sense of isolation that often accompanies darkness undoubtedly led our ancestors (of every religious tradition) to create rituals that would help them to dispel the darkness and create light. In Judaism, the light accompanying these rituals shone through the candelabras of the ancient Temple, and those candelabras ultimately emerged as the Chanukah menorah.
Chanukah was born when a few, highly motivated patriots were able to overcome the superior forces of a tyrant. When Jews have been motivated by their beliefs to pursue noble human ideals, Judaism has flourished.
Chanukah teaches that spirit can triumph over force; that deeply held principles and passionate morale can overcome mighty armies. This sentiment is captured in the words of the prophet Zechariah that we read on the Shabbat of Chanukah: “Not by armies and not by might but my spirit.“Jews have always maintained this belief; had we not, we would have disappeared long ago.
Chanukah reinforces the notion that each faith and creed has the sacred right to be different, to uphold its own ideas and principles, and to serve God in its own unique way. Hellenism sought to homogenize all faiths and cultures, but the Maccabees succeeded in battling for the right to uphold Judaism in a world of paganism.
The pressure to adopt Hellenistic culture was so great that certain elements within Jewish society sought to become fully assimilated and accepted as Greek citizens. Those that chose to keep their faith so that Judaism could live are heroic. The story of Chanukah is really the age-old struggle of Jewish people to remain Jewish in a non-Jewish world.
Perhaps the most important message of Chanukah is hope. The lesson of hope is typical of Judaism; we have never surrendered to the dark night of despair (whether in our national history or in our personal lives). By lighting just one candle, we illuminate the blackest of nights. Many would say this is what it means to be Jewish.
The phrase “December Dilemma” refers to the angst, confusion and sadness that certain groups sometimes experience during the winter holiday season. For converts to Judaism, December can be a painful reminder of a tradition that was extremely difficult to give up. For interfaith families, December can be a time of confusion in the home, as parents strive to provide their children with what they feel is the most enriching religious experience. And for Jews, December reminds us that we are in the minority - we do not celebrate Christmas, but it is pervasive. Thus, December poses a dilemma for many groups.
For those who have chosen Judaism or those studying toward conversion, giving up Christmas is often one of the most difficult things to contemplate and undertake. For many in this group, December is filled with tender nostalgia - the search for the perfect tree, the annual climb up to the attic for decorations, and the fun of adorning the tree with lights, tinsel and heirloom ornaments. The smell of pine, the holiday music playing in the home, the large family Christmas dinner and, of course, the watch for Santa Claus. All of these powerful memories come flooding back in December, posing not only a dilemma, but often a crisis of faith. Even those for whom Christmas had little to do with Christ, giving up the family traditions can be daunting and sorrowful. Although Judaism offers many warm and wonderful holidays, losing Christmas is indeed a loss; one that is mourned each December. In addition, it is important to note that parents and siblings of those converting do not convert, and so challenges of balancing extended families, celebrations and gift-giving inevitably emerge. During this season, it can be a struggle for those new to Judaism to resist the feeling of being outsiders in their own families.
For interfaith families, navigating a season dominated by Christmas can be confusing and anxiety provoking. In an attempt not to deprive their children of anything, many couples decide to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah in their homes. As a result, the meanings of the holidays often become diluted, and attention too easily turns to the superficial component shared by each – that is, gift-giving. And like families of converts, interfaith families often must balance extended families of different religions, each wanting the main celebration to be of their own holiday.