Yes, Virginia, there is a Chanukah.

Generations of Hebrew school kids have been bombarded with the repeated message: “Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.”

True–in fact, Christmas is more like the Christian Chanukah since it came afterwards.

Here’s what both holidays have in common:

  1. They both occur sometime near the Winter Solstice.
  2. They both involve lots of lights.
  3. They both have an exciting or important back story, infused with religious significance, that eventually came later.

Both Chanukah and Christmas have their origins in pagan winter festivals. Because this was the darkest and coldest time of year, it was customary for ancient people to light lots of fires for heat and light. Throw in some human sacrifice for good measure and you’ve got yourself a real party going–just not the type of soiree that early religious leaders wanted or approved of.

But how do you get people to stop when they’re having such a good time?

In a pretty clever example of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” these religious leaders used the existing winter solstice festivals, but gave them religious significance. Christians connected this time of year to a pretty important birthday. What did we do?

The holiday of Chanukah originally marked the Maccabees’ victory and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the hands of the Greeks. The narrative (as told in the Book of Maccabees) speaks about an unlikely but inspiring victory of a small band of rebels over a huge and formidable army, but includes not one word about any oil or miracle. Chanukah’s 8-day duration was likely reminiscent of King Solomon’s 8-day festival upon the completion of the First Temple. There’s also a connection to the 8-day festival of Sukkot which was originally delayed but then celebrated immediately upon taking back the Temple.

If Chanukah had simply¬†remained a commemoration of a military event, it probably wouldn’t have endured for too many generations. (Don’t believe me? Do we still call November 11 “Armistice Day”?)

Then the rabbis of the Talmud came up with a brilliant idea–they “invented” a cool story to go along with Chanukah. In the Talmud, they asked themselves the question, “What is Chanukah?” and then proceeded to answer it. And here, hundreds of years after the historical events, do we read for the first time about finding only one container of oil with which to light the Temple’s menorah. This small quantity of oil then miraculously lasted for 8 days, enough time to produce a sufficient supply of pure oil to keep things going.

The rabbis’ story was brilliant in every way:

  • It used a humdrum story about a war (the guys loved it, but the ladies were channel surfing) and completely transformed it into a story with God, miracles, and special effects.
  • The story took a familiar piece of Temple equipment–the menorah, a 7-branched candelabra which was routinely lit all year round–and turned it into the identifying symbol of Chanukah.
  • Chanukah now provided a rationale for all the lights that people were using as part of their winter solstice festivals. Now those lights had a religious significance. Hanerot halalu kodesh hem. These candles are holy.
  • Bonus: this Talmudic story, written with the benefit of hindsight, took the focus off of the Maccabees and put it squarely on God performing a miracle. Not commonly known is that the Hasmonean dynasty themselves ended up mostly assimilating after a few generations. The rabbis weren’t big fans.


Teaser for my next entry:
Rather than copying a modern custom of Christmas, gift giving on Chanukah is in fact one of the most authentic customs we have. Stay tuned.

[shameless plug] Oh, and by the way, if you just can’t wait, you can read about this and every other interesting facet of Chanukah as well as all the other holidays in my book, Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays. [/end shameless plug]


Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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