Every year at this season Jewish newspapers and magazines feature articles about the Hanukkah/Christmas dilemma.” The “dilemma” is the magnetic appeal of Christmas, which can either draw in Jewish children (and adults) or else leave them feeling left out of all the fun. Many see the beautiful lights, the lovely carols, the colorfully wrapped presents and other signs of the season as a fatal attraction, a threat to Jewish identity. Some confront this dilemma with humor, others with a degree of hand-wringing, sometimes scolding those who seem unable to resist the trappings of this “Christian holiday.” Indeed, many Jewish families give in to the temptation, buying trees (sometimes jokingly referred to as Hanukkah bushes), hanging stockings and exchanging presents on December 25.
Where does Hanukkah fit into this dilemma? For most of the past 2000 years it was regarded as a minor festival with very little by way of tradition or liturgy attached. But with the increasing, almost overwhelming presence of Western Christianity’s Christmas celebrations, Hanukkah has been amplified to provide a Jewish alternative to the hype and draw of the Christmas holiday. Still, Hanukkah happiness seems to have a hard time comparing with Christmas cheer. The dilemma continues.
Ironically, the real December dilemma is something the two holidays have in common. It is the triumph of secularism over spirituality, the focus on giving gifts to one another instead of celebrating the gift of God’s grace. The true hero of both holidays has been dethroned by worldly ways.
Someone once joked that all Jewish holidays could be summed up in one sentence: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” That certainly is how many people perceive the events of Hanukkah. The time was the second century B.C. Jews were under the thumb of an evil Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes. He not only forbade Jewish people to practice their own religion; he forced Greek culture and Greek gods down their throats.
A family of men known as the Maccabees, from the village of Modin (just outside of Jerusalem), began to fight against the mighty Syrian army. Though vastly outnumbered, these Jewish patriots defeated the Syrians, recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the holy Temple, hence the name of the holiday. (Hanukkah means dedication.)
Today we celebrate the holiday by kindling the hanukkiah, a candelabrum reminding us of the seven-branched menorah found in the ancient temple. Unlike that candelabrum, the hanukkiah has nine branches, according to the legend that God miraculously provided enough oil to last eight days when the Temple was first rededicated. The ninth candle, the shamash (servant), is used to bring light to the others. It is also traditional to exchange gifts, eat latkes (potato pancakes fried in olive oil) and play a game with a spinning top called dreidel. Children dress up like Maccabee soldiers and parade around celebrating their mighty victory. Judah the Hammer, the military leader of the Maccabee clan, figures prominently as the hero of Hanukkah.
But the real hero of the story is the God of Israel. He miraculously delivered the Jewish people from Antiochus Epiphanes. He kept His promise to save and defend His people. There is nothing wrong with gifts and games and good food, but if those things supplant the real meaning of the festival, if they take attention away from the real hero of Hanukkah, therein lies the dilemma.
Likewise, at Christmas there are trees and stockings, gifts to exchange and delicious food to enjoy together. But manger scenes have been crowded out by Santa and his reindeer and the glory of the Son of God is all too often hidden from view. Some holiday shoppers even respond to our tracts by demanding to know why we insist on making Christmas a “religious” holiday. They have forgotten the origins of the celebration.
It was the first A.D. century and Israel was under the thumb of Roman domination. More than that, the world was under the dominion of evil. Satan and his troops had captured humanity in their hellish grip. They were forcing depravity and death down the throats of God’s creation.
Messiah’s advent was God’s invasion into enemy territory. Yeshua’s (Jesus’) birth, death and resurrection brought about the defeat of the enemy and made possible the recapture of stolen territory. All who follow Him can be His temple, a holy place where God can dwell by His Spirit. Yeshua is the real hero of Christmas.
Thank God, we have seen His glory. Yet the glory of our Redeemer remains unseen and unknown by most of the world to this very day. The true Hanukkah/Christmas dilemma is the shared danger of forgetting that the real hero of the holidays is the Lord God of Israel. By remembering Him we overcome this dilemma and by worshiping Him we give the hero of our holidays His rightful place.
I suppose we could sum up the meaning of Hanukkah and Christmas in one sentence, “They tried to kill us, He won, let’s worship Him.” And that’s no joke. “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10).