As a child, I was always envious of my next-door neighbor who got to celebrate Christmas. Being Jewish, I had my own holiday, Hanukkah, but the Gentile holiday seemed so much bigger, so much better. I did not consider the meaning of either day, only the outward trappings, and my festivity did not measure up.
To console me, my parents stressed that our celebration lasted eight days, while my Gentile friend had only one day. We lit candles and got presents every night and they only got presents once. Yet, this did not satisfy me. My family was poor, and our presents consisted of inexpensive things like crayons and coloring books. We did get one bigger present on the last day of Hanukkah, when the relatives got together for a party, but for me, the other seven presents hardly counted.
On the other hand, my neighbor lived in a transformed house for what seemed like an entire month. She had tinsel and holly decorations and an absolutely indescribable tree decorated with glowing balls and glittering ornaments. She hung a stocking by her fireplace on Christmas Eve, and what she found in it the following morning made my paltry Hanukkah collection fade into insignificance.
Then there was Christmas morning. I could only dream of what unimaginable delights emerged from underneath that tree. All I knew for certain was that they were bigger than anything I ever got for Hanukkah. To be Jewish seemed a pale, dull life by comparison.
When I grew up and left home, I determined to celebrate Christmas. I had always wanted a Christmas tree, and now I bathed in the luxury of decorating it. I did this not according to any tradition, because my Jewish upbringing had provided none. I merely acted according to the dictates of my then-hippie heart. Christmas became a joy, allowing me to express my artistic yearnings and fulfill my childhood fantasies. In fact, I loved it so much that I rarely took the tree down before Valentine’s Day!
As Christmas grew in my esteem, Hanukkah faded in importance. Yet neither holiday had spiritual significance for me. They were simply expressions of celebration, and Christmas seemed the more successful expression.
In my mid-twenties, however, a transformation took place in my life. I read the Bible, and its truth took hold of my heart. I saw the messianic promise in the Jewish Scriptures and its fulfillment in the promised Messiah, Yeshua (Jesus). I accepted this Jewish Messiah into my life, and everything, including my appreciation of the winter celebrations, was transformed.
No more was Christmas merely an opportunity to decorate my house with aesthetic abandon. No longer meaningless works of art, the adornments now formed an expression of my love for my Redeemer, whose birth this special day celebrates. Without his presence, my Christmas tree could just as easily have been called a Hanukkah bush” or even a “winter solstice plant.” With him alive in my life, Christmas became a living reminder that Yeshua had walked the same earth I walked, had experienced the same daily joys and sorrows I experienced, had ministered in love to those around him, and ultimately had died that I might live eternally with him in glory.
And what about Hanukkah? Is it still a faded flower to me beside the vibrant green and the sparkle of the Christmas decor? Hardly, because I think Yeshua loved Hanukkah.
Yeshua probably never celebrated “Christmas.” It is unlikely his followers even baked him a birthday cake, although they may have thrown together some loaves and fishes for the occasion. Also, given the ambiguity surrounding the date of his birth, December 25 (or its Jewish calendar equivalent) may have meant nothing to him.
Yet I think Hanukkah did hold deep meaning for Yeshua. He stood in the Temple and declared himself the Light of the world (John 8:12). It was the same Temple the Maccabees had cleansed from pagan desecration nearly two centuries earlier and whose dedication with special oil was the basis for the Hanukkah miracle. As a Jew, Yeshua undoubtedly knew and expounded on the miracle of the Hanukkah lights, a foreshadowing of his own light that would enlighten the entire world, Jewish and Gentile alike.
Hanukkah has thus taken on renewed, enlarged meaning for me. I derive joy from decorating my home for Christmas, but I derive even greater joy in celebrating Hanukkah, remembering what God has done for my people in ages past. He more than enabled the Maccabees to triumph over their much stronger Greek-Syrian foes who sought to subjugate them, forbid their worship of God, and desecrate their holy places. God also sent his own Son into the world, a birth celebrated by Christmas, to redeem his own Jewish people and the Gentile peoples as well from the burden of their sins. The Hanukkah candles brighten my heart with the spiritual truth of his presence.
Is there a contest in my heart between the two days? No longer. Together they have been transformed into a physical expression of the love my Messiah has for me and for all mankind. It is a transformation worth celebrating!
Editor’s Note: Author Nancy Cochran is a Jewish believer in Yeshua and a long-time friend of our Jews for Jesus ministry.