I have to admit, that when first asked to write this article, I had a certain amount of trepidation. The intended goal, clearly, was an article that not only provided a historical perspective on the customs of Christmas, and the significance and traditions of Chanukah, but also to provide a vision of this time of year’s religious and spiritual significance to all mankind. In some ways, I can understand this perspective. The winter solstice, on Dec. 21, is a date that seems to have been significant even in ancient times. A number of monolithic structures including Stonehenge were erected along an axis that aligns with the rising of the sun on the solstice. There is, it seems, an ancient attunement to this date, and perhaps to the rhythms of the heavens that it represents.
My concerns about this task stem largely from the fact that, as a Jew, my relationship with Christmas is somewhat strained. The obsession in American media with Christmas doesn’t resonate with me, and the few, strained attempts at inclusion within our culture can come across as pandering, or even offensive. For instance, when I was in third grade or so, I recall a music teacher who decided we should learn “holiday” songs. Her curriculum included a plethora of Christmas songs, but the only nod to Chanukah was “Dreidal, Dreidal, Dreidal.” Don’t get me wrong, the dreidal song is cute, and I would have nothing against it as an example of one song about Chanukah, but as the only song, it leaves a lot to be desired, especially since there are many other Chanukah songs, some of which are quite beautiful. The teacher argued that “Dreidal, Dreidal, Dreidal” was the only one that she knew. This isn’t a major incident in my life, but it’s not the only time I have felt as if Chanukah was looked down upon in our culture.
None of this is to say anything against the celebration of Christmas itself. I recognize, albeit as an outsider, that there is a warm and loving holiday tradition, one of many beautiful customs and incarnations. I went with my girlfriend, who is Christian, to buy a Christmas tree and a wreath, and I am looking forward to helping her decorate them both. While it may not be my holiday, it is beautiful, and I know it brings a lot of joy into the lives of many people and families, and I feel privileged to share in some of that with the woman I love. But, it’s not my tradition, and one can’t help but feel a bit of an outsider when there is so much cultural focus on an event that you are not connected with.
As well, I do not mean to suggest that I ever felt that Chanukah was insufficient. Indeed, I can recall many warm memories of the holiday, filled with family traditions and the type of joyful togetherness that we all hope to share at such festive times. There is a beauty to the fact that Chanukah lasts as long as it does, an extension of that familial holiday state, which we so yearn for as children. I recall my parents placing our gifts, all wrapped up, on high shelves my brother and I could never have reached and asking us each night to select one gift for unwrapping. I remember blessing the candles and singing songs, and being with my parents and, usually, either my maternal or paternal grandparents. It was certainly a special time, and I can never once recall wishing I could celebrate Christmas.
Ironically, Christmas actually has a lot to do with my experiences of Chanukah, and with the overall popularity of the holiday. Traditionally, Chanukah is not an overly significant celebration as far as Jewish observances go. It’s consider a minor festival, as opposed to major holy days like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and is not mentioned in the Torah, as are Passover and Sukkot. Chanukah is actually a fairly recent addition to the Jewish calendar, as it celebrates events that occurred in the second century BCE. By contrast, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah were observed in the First Temple nearly a millennium earlier. According to Jewish tradition, the first Passover occurred one year after the exodus from Egypt. While the historical accuracy of this is debatable, it is clear that all of the major Jewish holy days and festivals were observed during the earliest days of the Kingdom of Israel.
Chanukah, as mentioned above, didn’t come into existence until the second century BCE. In the year 168 BCE, Syrian invaders took control of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, desecrated it, and then dedicated it to the Greek God Zeus. According to some accounts, they sacrificed pigs within the temple, further defiling it, according to Jewish law. A resistance movement, led by the Maccabees, a priestly family, rose up against the Syrian army and the tyrant Antiochus. Though the Jews were outnumbered and ill equipped, their guerilla tactics won the day, and their military leader, Judas Maccabee, is still remembered. Chanukah, which means dedication, celebrates the ceremony that re-consecrated the temple after that victory. It is the act of purifying and rededicating the temple itself that is being observed.
An additional legend is also attached, though it is first recorded many years later and is not mentioned in Maccabees I or II of the Apocrypha. The story goes that after the temple was regained, it was realized that the supply of oil that remained in its’ stores would only allow the eternal flame to be lit for a single day. The eternal flame, a symbol that is still to be found in every Jewish house of worship, is to stay lit at all times. It would take at least eight days for a messenger to return with more oil, and there was a great upset that the flame would not last. Through a miracle of God, the oil that should have only have kept the light alive for a single day lasted until the messenger returned, eight days later. This is why Chanukah lasts eight days.
The Chanukah celebrations I recall from my own childhood owe their character to some fairly modern traditions. Gift giving, for instance, was a custom developed by American Jews, and seems to only have become a widespread practice in the 1920s. This is largely in response to American customs surrounding Christmas, and the desire of Jewish parents in America to give their children a holiday experience more akin to that of their gentile neighbors. The essential aspects of Chanukah’s ritual are unchanged, we still light the menorah and use the same prayers, and the story and message remain unaltered, but it’s meaning and customs have grown in response to the modern focus on the winter holiday season.
In many ways, modern Christmas traditions are a result of similar forces. Saturnalia, the Roman winter holiday, was clearly the precursor to Christmas. The actual date of Jesus’ birth day is difficult to confirm, but we do know that the first record of Christmas being celebrated on the 25th of December occurred during the reign of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity as his faith. It is worth noting that according to the Julian calendar used at the time, Dec. 25th was also the date of the winter solstice, as well as a time of celebration in the Roman religion.
One finds many different versions of Saturnalia. This is not entirely surprising, considering that the holiday was celebrated throughout the Roman era. The general of Saturnalia is a reversal of order. In some accounts, all laws were considered unenforceable for the period, allowing even crimes such as rape and murder to occur with no recourse. This tradition is one that seems to have been watered down over time, though the concept of reversing the normal order was continued. For instance, slaves were granted freedom while their masters served them. As well, a King of Saturnalia or Lord of Misrule would be chosen at random. This figure would be served and allowed his every whim throughout the festivities, ordering others to do his bidding and indulging his every appetite. In early incarnations, it seems that at the end of the holiday, this pseudo king would be sacrificed as a symbol of the restoration of order, but again, this practice is likely to have faded by the time of Constantine. The concept of a Lord of Misrule did continue to some extent under Catholicism in the context of the Feast of Fools, which was held Jan. 1, a tradition that has been noted in many texts discussing the medieval church in Europe. Interestingly, not only was this feast predicated upon the notion of reversing the social order, but it was also associated with licentious behavior. But the church seems to have condemned the celebration throughout the era.
That Constantine chose to align Christmas with an already existing holiday is sensible, and it is clear, as well, that Christmas also served, at least in the long run, to purge many of the less savory aspects of Saturnalia. Caroling can be seen as a more dignified version, for instance, of the tradition of drunken revelers singing naked in the streets, an apparently common part of the Saturnalia celebration. At the same time, we should recognize that there are many other Christmas traditions that did not originate with Saturnalia. For instance, Christmas trees are likely a remnant of the widespread practices commonly associated with Druids (though shared with many other pagans) of decorating the home with evergreen boughs at the time of the solstice, a symbol that nature will renew itself as the days grew longer. The practice of decorating with these trees was actually condemned by the early Christian church due to the connection with paganism. The prophet Jeremiah specifically condemned bringing trees into the home and decorating them as a practice of the Middle Eastern pagan cults he had observed. Greeks may have been the first to decorate such trees, and Egyptians, who did not have evergreens, decorated with palm trees in winter. Romans also included these traditions, but this does not seem to be the source for the practice today.
It is more likely that the modern Christmas tree’s direct antecedent is the Germanic practice of tying fruit and candles to the branches of an evergreen tree to honor Woden. The modern Christmas tree actually began as a practice in Germany, and originally was decorated with foods like ginger bread or fruit. It was only when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, came to Britain that the practice spread. Albert remembered the tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas as part of his own childhood and insisted that he and Victoria should have a Christmas tree. Had Queen Victoria been a less popular monarch, the practice might never have caught on.
Of course, it is worth remembering that Christianity and Judaism are not the only traditions. Many other cultures could be discussed in relationship to their winter festivities. Some may wonder why I didn’t include something about Muslim traditions, but that issue is a bit complicated and has to do with the Islamic calendar. The Gregorian calendar we are all used to is solar, and thus it fixes astronomical phenomena like the winter solstice to specific dates, along with aligning the seasons to specific periods in the calendar (the leap year is, of course, designed to maintain this alignment). However the Jewish and Islamic calendars use lunar cycles to derive their dates. Jewish holidays, for example, move about. Just last year, Chanukah coincided with Thanksgiving in America, something that has never before occurred and won’t happen again for millennia. In order to keep correlation with the seasons in tact, the calendar uses some solar aspects through the inclusion of leap months in certain years. The Islamic calendar, however, is truly lunar and does not make such adjustments. As such, the year in the Islamic calendar is 11 days shorter than the secular year, and thus, there is no specific winter holiday in Islam, because each year the holidays move earlier in relationship to the seasons.
The point, though, is not the origin of any of these traditions, nor is it that one holiday steals from another. Rather, what I have found myself thinking about most is the fluidity of our traditions, and the way the boundaries between them blurs. As a Jewish child, I did not realize that much of what I celebrated as Chanukah was largely developed as a direct response to the Christmas traditions that existed in America, and that does not change the meaning of holiday to me. No holiday, to borrow a phrase, is an island. All our traditions come from each other, and we are blessed to be able to share from what has come before us. While we may not all believe in the same ways, or even in the same things, we can all recognize the interconnections of our faiths, and can understand, as a community filled with diverse beliefs, that what we seek -- the joy, the sense of love and family, the desire to share and make the lives of those around us sweeter--is universal.