Rabbi Howard A. Berman is the National Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, and also leads Boston Jewish Spirit, a progressive Reform congregation in Boston, Mass., with a special outreach to interfaith families.
Chanukah and Christmas: The Deeper Connections
One of the most dramatic reflections of the cultural and religious diversity that is the hallmark of contemporary American society, is the way in which Chanukah and Christmas have come to be joined together in the popular consciousness as a shared holiday season. While this is something of a relatively recent phenomenon, there is good reason for the linking of these two festivals beyond their convergence in the calendar.
It is, of course, always important to acknowledge the asymmetries and differences between these celebrations, particularly the very different places they occupy in our respective faith traditions. Christmas is one of the two major festivals of the Christian church--its High Holy Days, if you will. A more accurate Jewish parallel would be Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Easter, in turn, corresponds to both the pre-eminent sanctity of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in addition to its more immediate historic and symbolic links to Passover.
Chanukah, on the other hand, is designated in the Jewish liturgical calendar as a "minor festival," much later in origin than these more ancient and venerable Biblically ordained holy days. Its observance has been, until our time, primarily a family centered folk celebration. In contemporary America and Israel, however, Chanukah has undergone a transformation and has emerged as a major celebration of Jewish identity - with the renewal of many of its old traditions and the creative development of new dimensions to its observance. And yet--while the common perceptions that equate Chanukah and Christmas are, on significant historical and theological levels, inaccurate--there are nevertheless many deep and meaningful parallels and connections between them.
One of the most important connections is the common root of both holidays in ancient and universal winter solstice celebrations. The celebration of light and life in the midst of the barren darkness and cold of winter, is certainly at the heart of both Chanukah and Christmas - so clearly reflected in the symbols of both holidays--the kindling of light and the ancient image of the " tree of life." Both Judaism and Christianity incorporated these pre-existing celebrations into their respective developments of Chanukah and Christmas, adding, of course, distinctive new historical and theological meanings as well. The most ancient symbol of Judaism, the seven-branch candlestick, the Menorah, combines both motifs--God's presence and creative power, embodied in Light--and the imagery of the many-branched tree as a symbol of God as the creative force in the natural world. The special nine-branch Menorah used for Chanukah, linked these ideas to the universal winter solstice symbolism celebrating light in winter darkness and life in the midst of nature's barrenness at this season. And of course in later generations, Christian tradition also employed these earlier motifs in the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity, combining them into the evergreens and lights of the Advent wreath and the Christmas tree. Roman Saturnalia celebrations, Druid holly and Germanic evergreens may be the immediate precursors of modern holiday symbols, but the Biblical "tree of life" imagery, and the idea of Jesus- and by extension, the Christian Church, as a branch of the tree whose roots are in Judaism, lie at the heart of Christmas's theological foundation.
This link is also clear in the text of the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"… which, in its use of the Hebrew word meaning "God is with Us," and its evocation of the historical setting of Jesus' birth in the midst of Jewish suffering under the Romans in the First Century, dramatically underscores the intersection of these two traditions. These themes also echo in the many other traditional carols that refer to Jesus being born in "Jewry," destined to become "King of Israel." And there also are many other deep and fascinating links between our two holidays… including an unexpected but profound connection particularly suggested by the New Testament text from Luke's narrative of the Annunciation, which is a major lectionary highlight of the Advent season.
Now to fully appreciate the convergence, we must understand the story of Chanukah. This narrative is taken from the First Century books of the Apocrypha, and commemorates the victory of the Jewish struggle against the oppression of the Hellenistic Syrian overlords of the land of Israel, in the era following the conquering of the ancient Middle East by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. Two centuries after Alexander's relatively enlightened and benevolent tolerance of religious and cultural diversity in his far flung empire, his successors became ever more zealous in their efforts to impose--by force--Greek culture, language and religion on their subjects. In 170 BC, the Greco-Syrian ruler of occupied Israel, Antiochus IV, defiled the great Temple in Jerusalem with the erection of a statue of Zeus within its Sanctuary, and decreed that the most important observances of Judaism were to be prohibited. A rebellion broke out in the year 168 BC. The leader of the humble shepherds, farmers and villagers who joined in this grass roots resistance, was Judah, the son of Mattathias, the Jewish Priest of the small village of Mod'in. His ragged band of rebels took the name Maccabees--an acrostic formed by the first letters of the Hebrew words that they adopted as their motto, a phrase from Exodus 15:11, Mi Chamocha Ba-elim Adonai…"Who is like unto You O Lord, among the mighty."
Despite daunting, overwhelming, indeed impossible odds, the rebellion of this small rabble against the greatest military forces of the time was dramatically and miraculously victorious. Three years later in December of the year 165 BCE, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, drove out the tyrannical rulers and--significantly--on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, rededicated the Sanctuary to the worship of the God of Israel. They ordained a new festival of freedom and thanksgiving they called Chanukah--the Hebrew word for "dedication." The subsequent mythic narratives of these events included the popular miracle story of the lights of the Temple menorah burning undimmed for eight days during that first celebration of the newly instituted holiday.
But within a century, a far more powerful and cruel oppressor was to descend upon Israel--the ruthless power of imperial Rome. It was in the tumultuous years of the early first century BC, with the Maccabeen spirit of resistance and rebellion against tyranny resurfacing once again among the people of the Roman Province of Judea, that the stage was set for the events surrounding the birth, life and death of Jesus. And in no sense is the true historical and spiritual link between Chanukah and Christmas clearer than in the context of the Gospel story of the Annunciation. Mary--more accurately Miriam [Hebrew], or Maryam [Aramaic]--the Galilean peasant girl of the tiny village of Nazareth, whose destiny as the mother of Jesus unfolds in this Gospel narrative, is visited by the angel Gabriel who tells her that she is about to give birth to a child.
The text relates how troubling this announcement was to the young girl. However, the usual focus on her virginity was actually, the least of the disturbing implications of her encounter with Gabriel. Mary may have been a simple illiterate peasant girl, but like all Jews she was acutely aware of the oppression of her people by the Roman forces who ruled over them. She would have been very familiar with the story of the heroism of Judah and the Maccabees two centuries earlier. And she would have been aware of the talk among the people of the village of hopes for a new redemption from tyranny. Mary and her family probably observed Chanukah, although still in a rudimentary form. As a national commemoration of liberation, the festival was, in this period, certainly suppressed by the Romans and their puppets—Herod the King and the priestly establishment of the Jerusalem Temple - regarded as traitors and collaborators by most common people in the Jewish community. And yet, Miriam of Nazareth would also have been fully aware of the profoundly dangerous and subversive political implications of Gabriel's revelation—that her son's name was to be Yeshua, meaning savior, and that his destiny would be the "inheriting of the throne of King David, to rule over the House of Jacob forever."
That such a deliverance could happen again--as had been granted in the days of the Chanukah story two centuries earlier--and that she, a simple young woman from an obscure desert village, would be the source of this redemption--was more than troubling for Mary. Unlike Matthew, who explicitly states the political implications of Jesus' genealogy and birth, Luke couches the issue in safe symbolic terms for the oppressive times in which he wrote his narrative. Luke focuses on Mary's virginity and the seeming impossibility of her conceiving a child. But when the angel tells her "With God, nothing is impossible," it is the idea of a new liberation, and that her son would usurp the power of Rome, that surely must have seemed most miraculous of all. It is striking that this phrase seems to so clearly echo the words of Judah himself as recounted in the Chanukah story. When many expressed doubt and fear at the prospect of the small Maccabean band resisting the powerful forces of Antiochus, Judah replied "With the God of Heaven, it is the same to save by many or by few!" That phrase would have possibly been familiar to Mary and was doubtlessly known by Luke. And this faith in the miraculous power of God to change human history--to bring freedom and redemption - both political and spiritual - in the most unlikely circumstances--is at the heart of both narratives. This message is, indeed, the most profound link between the Chanukah and Christmas stories. Above all the parallels--and the contrasts--between the two festivals, both ultimately affirm the miracle of redemption ... of liberation and salvation ... of God's love ... and of the deliverance of humanity.
This is a miracle we still yearn and pray for today--a time in world history that seems all too much like the first century two millennia ago. Humanity still lives under the yoke of oppression and of war--of the denial of freedom and liberty to so many people in our world. Chanukah and Christmas, both proclaim the promise of light in the midst of darkness… of life in the face of death… of liberation from all oppression… and of the hope for peace on earth. And both affirm that with God--who achieves the Divine purpose whether by many or by few--nothing is impossible!
As the holiday season approaches, the inauguration of Advent proclaims the anticipation of these redemptions--hopes that are also echoed in the Chanukah tradition which begins with the kindling of one solitary candle on the first night of the Festival, and increases the light and joy as an additional taper is added to the Menorah on each of the successive eight nights. The parallel ceremony of the weekly addition of candles to the Advent wreath, reflects the common theme of both Festivals--that our anticipation and hope for redemption grows steadily throughout this season. And the kindling of the lights of both Chanukah and Christmas remind us of a key dimension to the Messianic hopes of both of our faiths--that just as we must personally light the candles to illumine the darkness, so too--ultimately--it will be our personal initiative, energy and commitment that will be necessary to help fulfill the Messianic hopes we all cherish. As we once again prepare to usher in both of these beloved festivals, may we all be granted faith in the possibility of such miracles, and a realization of each of our roles in making these dreams a reality!
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.