If you are Jewish and already a bit uncomfortable with the Christmas season, then, as the song says, “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town”—on the first night of Hanukkah!
Most Jewish people—and, I hope, most gentiles—know that Christmas is not about Santa Claus. It’s about Jesus (Yeshua, in Hebrew).
As the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve coincide this winter, the “December dilemma” will be almost unavoidable for interfaith families—specifically, Jewish-Gentile couples and their children.
It can all get a bit confusing. Check out this feature of a Disney cruise:
Holiday story time beneath the giant tree, where children gather to hear classic tales of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza, including a cozy and intimate storytelling with Mrs. Claus as she shares some of her favorite Christmas stories.
Does it strike anyone else as a bit strange for a Jewish kid to be sitting under a giant tree with Mrs. Claus on Hanukkah?
The dilemma: What shall we celebrate? How shall we celebrate?
Let’s get to the heart of the matter: is there any connection between Hanukkah and Christmas?
On the surface—on the basis of tradition—one would say, “No way!” Christmas celebrants decorate trees, sing carols, stuff stockings, eat fruitcake, wait for St. Nick, and give gifts. Other than the gifts (and eight nights of them!), Hanukkah seems to bear little resemblance to Christmas, as children play dreidel, eat latkes, light the menorah, and dance the hora.
Roots of the Christmas Tree
But let’s dig a little deeper—at the roots (pardon the pun) of the Christmas tree, for a start.
The modern Christmas tree originated in western Germany as the main prop of a popular play in medieval times about Adam and Eve. Known as a “Paradise tree,” a fir was decorated with apples, representing the Garden of Eden.
So what do Adam and Eve have to do with Christmas?
According to the biblical account, they listened to Satan, disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit. God told Satan (who was in the form of a serpent): “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
Many Christians understand the seed of Eve to be the Messiah, Yeshua, who defeated Satan (“bruise your [Satan’s] head”) through his death and subsequent resurrection.
The Bethlehem Baby King
Another Jewish-Christmas connection takes us to Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2, 5:1 in the JPS)
Can you think of anyone associated with Christmas who was born in Bethlehem? (Hint: It wasn’t Santa Claus.)
But what does any of this have to do with Hanukkah?
The Hanukkah story took place during the 400-year period between the writing of the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures and the first book of the New Testament.
The Jewish people were under Persian rule until Alexander defeated the Persians in 331 b.c. When Alexander died, his kingdom was divided among his generals. Syria was under the Seleucids, who ruled over Judea and tried to indoctrinate the Jewish people with Greek culture. Antiochus IV (the “Madman King”) came to power in 175 b.c. He decreed, “Whoever refuses [to renounce Judaism] should be put to death.” And many were. Antiochus desecrated the Holy Temple, offering a pig on the altar to honor the Greek god, Zeus.
Bye, Bye Antiochus
Mattathias, an elderly Jewish priest, and his five sons gathered a band of guerilla fighters. After three years of combat, they defeated the Syrians in 165 b.c. under the leadership of one of the sons, Judah, called “Maccabee,” which means “hammer.” He reclaimed and purified the Temple.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people were expecting the Messiah to be a political hero like Judah Maccabee and to deliver them from Roman rule. (This is one reason why the majority of our Jewish people at the time felt that Jesus could not be the Messiah.)
But years earlier, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a Messiah king who would rule eternally but come as a child: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Isaiah said that this Messiah would be born of a virgin: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” [Immanuel means God is with us] (Isaiah 7:14). And Isaiah also said that this Messiah would die for the sins of the people: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).
Judah Maccabee and the Messiah
Judah Maccabee gained a great victory for the nation from religious persecution. Isaiah spoke of a Messiah who will rule and reign in the future, but who first would give his life as a ransom. For this to happen, the Messiah would need to be resurrected. Isaiah confirms this: “When his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days” (Isaiah 53:12).
Yeshua (Jesus) meets all these criteria.
Legend says that, although Judah Maccabee only found enough oil in the Temple to burn for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight. Today, we commemorate this by kindling the lights of the menorah, and Hanukkah is known as “the Festival of Lights.” Jesus said this about himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). It is traditional to have a shammos candle as part of the Hanukkah menorah to light the other eight candles. “Shammos” means servant. The writer of this article believes that the shammos can be regarded as a visual symbol of Jesus, who came to bring the light of salvation to the world.
So at this season of Chrismukkah, how can Jew and gentile celebrate together?
The Forbidden Book
If you are a gentile who has never explored the Jewish roots of Christianity, why not open up the first “two-thirds” of your Bible and take a look? If you are Jewish and have never opened that “forbidden” book, the New Testament, take the time to read it for yourself. You will discover that the New and the “Old” Testaments are not two books, but one. You will come to see that Jesus is the reason for the season—for Jew and gentile alike.
Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!
2 Scott Sanders, “2015 Very MerryTime Sailings on the Horizon for the Disney Cruise Line Fleet,” http://disneycruiselineblog.com/2015/10/2015-very-merrytime-sailings-on-the-horizon-for-the-disney-cruise-line-fleet
3 “Christmas Tree,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree
4 Some Jewish traditions also see Genesis 3:15 as speaking of the Messiah, contrary to the prevailing rabbinic view. Alfred Edersheim writes, “This well-known passage is paraphrased, with express reference to Messiah, in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the so-called Jerusalem Targum.” Alfred Edersheim: The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), p. 711.