FORT WORTH, Texas, December 11, 2017: Christmas may define December in the minds of many. But it also hosts Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights. This year, Chanukah begins at sundown on December 12th. It would seem and Chanukah and Christmas have nothing to do with each other. But that isn’t necessarily so.
Raised as a Christian around Christians, my knowledge of Judaism is limited. The Jewish stories that came my way explained that when forbidden to live and practice their faith, the Jews rebelled. The then-reigning Greek king, Antiochus, demanded they worship the pagan Greek gods, but the Jewish people refused. They would not sin against God.
The king then gave the Jewish people an ultimatum: either give up their Jewish customs or face death. He marched his troops into Jerusalem and, while trying to destroy the Jewish people, desecrated their holy temple.
The Maccabee family, led by Judah, revolted against the enemy and took back the Temple. In the midst of its restoration, they found the menorah on the altar was empty, while there was only enough consecrated oil to burn for a single day. The miracle of Chanukah is that this one day’s worth of oil kept the lamps lit for eight days: just the amount of time it takes to consecrate more holy oil.
That amazing event made me want to know more. Research took me to Destination Yisra’el. Among the things I learned was that the American Founding Fathers were great admirers of Judah and the Maccabees.
My good friend and colleague Caryn FitzGerald is Jewish and also an invaluable source of information about the Festival of Lights too. She shared her own Chanukah memories and traditions with me.
Caryn grew up with her parents and younger brother in New City, New York. Each December there were Chanukah decorations, creations of blue and white with six pointed stars that trimmed her family’s home. The fragrance of latkes (potato pancakes) filled the air along with sufganiot (deep-fried, jelly-filled doughnuts) as well as a special meal prepared by her mother.
Her father worked in Manhattan and it took some time for him to travel to their home from the city. The celebrating wouldn’t start until he got there. On the first night of Chanukah, Caryn’s grandmother would often travel from the Bronx to celebrate with them too.
Both Chanukah and Christmas celebrations involve the exchange of presents, at least in part. Waiting for Christmas – and those presents – is arduous for Christian kids. For Jewish kids, waiting once a day for gifts for eight consecutive days must be torture. But we Christian kids thought Jewish kids had it made with their eight days’ worth of presents compared to our single day.
Once Caryn’s dad was home, the family festivities would start. First came prayers. Then the menorah was lit and placed in the window before dinner. All the gifts for each of the eight nights were on display, and the children would pick one from the pile each day. They also played with dreidels (spinning tops), ate chocolate candy coins called Gelt, which came wrapped in gold or silver foil, and joined together singing traditional songs.
My family had the honor to attend Caryn’s daughter Sami’s Bat-Mitzvah several years ago. It was my first time attending a Jewish religious service. This was followed just a couple of weeks later by Chanukah. My family attended the first night community festival with the FitzGeralds at Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth. We learned, sang, attended a musical and broke bread together. It was truly a wonderful experience.
Caryn believes that Chanukah’s miracle shows that the Lord God is reminding Jews He is here with and for them, showing there is something bigger going on than just what occurs within the confines of mortal life. He cares about what happens.
I have wondered why Christians don’t celebrate Chanukah. As a devout Jew, Jesus certainly must have celebrated it. The New Testament even mentions Chanukah in John 10:22.
Judah Maccabee lived long before anyone followed Jesus. When we celebrated the first night of Chanukah, Rabbi Mecklenburger said that Jews wouldn’t exist now if it were not for the Maccabees’ rebellion and eventual victory over their enemy. That also means there ultimately wouldn’t have been any Christians either.
Judaism is the spiritual ancestor of Christianity. Jesus was a Jew. He never ceased being a Jew and never renounced Judaism. To me Judaism is part of my religious heritage.
Many say that Chanukah, a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, wouldn’t be a big deal if not for Christmas. Perhaps that is so. But perhaps Chanukah and Christmas have influenced one another over the centuries. It’s true that on the surface, each holiday looks very different. Yet light is the common theme of both Chanukah and Christmas.
That one day’s worth of oil not only burned for eight days in the Temple. Think of what that miracle must have strengthened the faith of Judah and the faithful. For their part, Christians believe that Jesus is the Light of the World. He came to defeat spiritual darkness and death. As we can see, both traditions commemorate and celebrate the defeat of the darkness in our lives, demonstrating that God is ever present in them.
In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, God charges Jews and Christians to be light, and to bring that light to the world as well. It’s a spiritual metaphor that unites Chanukah and Christmas.
In Chanukah and Christmas as well, we all thank and offer prayers to the Lord for His goodness and love. We pass on religious customs to teach our children who we are: Jews by birthright and faith and Christians by faith alone.
I wish all my Jewish readers a very Happy Chanukah, chag Chanukah sameach! May the blessings of the holiday shine in your lives always. L’Chaim!
I offer many heartfelt thanks to Caryn FitzGerald for sharing her faith and way of life with me.