Tonight by calendar coincidence the First Night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve arrive smack dab at the same time. This festive night should be the cause of great joy to just about everybody but Chinese restaurant owners who traditionally made a killing serving Jewish households who go out for dinner when all of the goyim are merrily Noëling and the other eateries are closed.
Tonight marks the First Night of Chanukah—25 Kislev in the year 5777 in the Hebrew Calendar. The date on many calendars will say December 8, but don’t let that fool you—by tradition the observance begins a sun down the evening before. The festival will run for eight nights until January 1—New Year’s Day—or 2 Tevet. But don’t look for it on these exact dates again anytime soon. Because the Hebrew Calendar is Lunar, the dates float in relationship to the Gregorian Calendar anywhere from late November to late December.
Christmas, as most people but willful fundamentalists know, is celebrated around the time of the Solstice because the early Church wanted to co-opt the return-of-the-sun festivals long observed and treasured by the pagans—the catchall name for the country people with pre-Christian faiths. The actual birthday of Jesus, a/k/a the Christ Child, if it was a historical event as recounted in the Gospels, is unknown but thought by some Biblical scholars to likely have been in the Spring when shepherds typically stayed out in the fields with their flocks to protect the new born lambs from wolves.
Elements of the Christmas story, especially the Star leading the Magi to the stable, echoed the symbolism of the return of the light in the pagan traditions. And Christ/Jesus himself, his tiny head ringed by a halo in icons and paintings, marked the arrival of the Light of God and hope for humanity.
Chanukah represents another miracle of light. When Judah Maccabee, his brothers, and followers entered Jerusalem after a long and victorious guerilla rebellion against the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire ruled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and his Helanized Jewish allies. The found the Temple of David profaned by an idol to the god/king Antiochus and the unclean rituals performed by his priests. In the Holy of Holies the seven-branched golden candelabrum called the Menorah, essential to worship and which must be kept lit, was found with only enough oil to burn for one day. It would take more than a week to prepare and ritually purify more oil. The Macabee lit the flame any way at it miraculously burned for eight days, long enough for the new oil to be prepared.
Because it is not described in the Torah or prescribed in ancient Law like Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah is officially considered a minor Jewish holiday. But its cultural importance is far greater even than its religious significance. Because of the many persecutions of Jews through the centuries and because the ritual could safely be performed in the privacy of the home and away from prying eyes, Chanukah became a celebration of hope for deliverance against oppression as the Maccabees delivered the Temple from the defilers. Stories about observances even in Nazi extermination camps have added special significance to the holiday for many.
In Europe and the U.S. the rise of Christmas from a holy day to a long season that overwhelms and dominates everything else even as it has become more and more secularized, many Jews ramped up their own observances of Chanukah so their children would not feel left out by the excitement and presents of Christmas. Many non-Orthodox and secularized Jews, as well as the many dual-faith families, have even adopted or a so called Chanukah bush or even embraced Christmas as the secular holiday of Santa and sales alongside of Chanukah.
I know, it’s complicated.
But we have an undeniable connection between Solstice, Chanukah, Christmas, and other observations this time of year around the world. I call them all together the Festivals of Light and several years ago celebrated them all in a poem which is included in my collection, We Build Temples in the Heart published in 2004 by Skinner House Books of Boston. It is one of two of my seasonal poems that is fairly widely used in Unitarian Universalist services this time of year.
Miracle of Light
When the sky has swallowed the sun,
left us in icy darkness
save the brief gray memory of light
escaping from its stifled yawn.
When hope and heat and harvest
have been banished into night
and dread, despair and death
grip our forlorn hearts—
Then, just then a light returns.
Druidic fires tor to hillock
call again the sun
and shyly does it come once more.
The awful gloom of tyranny
is banished by a zealous few
so that a Temple drop of Macabean oil
may burn a mystic week.
Some account a sudden brilliant star,
a nova in Judean skies
to mark a coming messenger
of hope and faith and love.
And though the gloom may crowd us still
the light may lift our hearts
until this spinning, turning ball
we ride around the sun.
brings us again to Spring,