For those of you who have yet to check out my other website WHY NINE CANDLES FOR CHANUKAH: QUESTIONS YOU NEVER THOUGHT TO ASK (www.whyninecandles.com), here is Chapter 10. It is particularly relevant for this year when we light the first candle of Chanukah on Christmas Eve.
74. Is there a connection between Chanukah and Christmas?
A: The only connection between the two holidays is in the mind of Americans. The holidays could not be more different: Chanukah is minor; Christmas is major. Chanukah commemorates an historical battle, Christmas the birth of the Christian messiah. The only things they have in common are that they both are celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of their respective months, both include the exchange of gifts, and both use lights as a symbol.
75. Why is the twenty-fifth day of the winter month important?
A. Several traditional Jewish sources, both historical and religious, including the Book of Maccabees I and II, Josephus, the Midrash, the Mishna, and the Talmud, cite the 25th of Kislev as the date of the rededication and repurifiction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The decision to place the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December, however, is not based on contemporaneous sources, nor is it universally accepted by all Christian sects. The Eastern Churches (Greek and Russian) did not adopt the Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 6 or 7, which corresponds to December 25 on the earlier Julian calendar.
The first instance known of Christmas being celebrated on December 25 was in 336 CE, when the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine declared the holiday. The date was codified a few years later by Pope Julius I. The reason had to do with the tradition that the Annunciation, when Mary was informed she was carrying the child of God, occurred nine months earlier, on March 25.
The Romans believed the Winter Solstice, the day with the fewest hours of sunlight, occurred on December 25. The first few weeks in December were an important time for pagans throughout Northern Europe and Scandanavia, where it was called Yule. In Southern Europe, December 17-23 marked the Roman Festival of Saturnalia, which honored Saturn. In Mthraism, a cultic religion originating in Persia and practiced in the Roman Empire from circa 1st to 4th centuries, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “birthday of the unconquered sun,” celebrating the birth of the Sun God Mithra, took place on on December 25.
People were already celebrating during this time of the year, so it is reasonable to think that the religious authorities would reinterpret the pagan rituals to become Christian ones.
76. Why are lights important to both holidays?
A. In Judaism, the candles are lit to commemorate the relighting of the eternal light on the menorah in the Temple, and to celebrate the miracle of the one-day supply of oil that lasted eight days.
Lights as a symbol for Christmas did not begin until the 17th century in Germany when trees were decorated with candles. Because of the fire hazard, it wasn’t until electric lights became generally available that the custom of decorating with colored lights became more widespread.
But the symbolism of lights in the midst of the shortest days of the year goes back to pagan times. The hours of daylight dwindled. How to bring back the sun? With the use of sympathetic magic. Light fires and the sun will be rekindled. And it worked. Every year, the sun’s power was restored after fires were lit.
77. Why are gifts given on Chanukah?
A. Gift giving on Chanukah was never part of the tradition of the holiday, except for small presents of candies or nuts or coins to children. It was, however, traditional in many Jewish societies to give money to the poor. As discussed above (question #16), the emphasis on the exchange of presents on Chanukah has been in response to the influence of Christmas and its prevalence and importance among many Christians. The tradition of giving presents on Christmas originated with the Christian belief that the Three Wise Men brought gifts to the infant Jesus.
78. Are there ways to avoid the gift-giving frenzy?
A. With peer pressure, constant bombardment of toy ads in public spaces and on TV and the internet, and the desire by many American Jews to assimilate and not be seen as “other” by the majority of Americans, it is very difficult to avoid the competition to give bigger and better gifts. But gift giving can be minimized. Children can become involved with tzadakah, charity, giving away one old toy for every new one received, volunteering on Christmas day at food banks or hospitals or other places so Christian workers can be home with their families. Gifts do not have to be big, nor numerous. There is no reason for a child to receive, for example, one gift every night from all the relatives. Even if children receive one present from each set of grandparents and from the parents on every day of the holiday, they will have gotten a total of 24 gifts. And that does not include gifts from aunts, uncles, cousins, friends …. Limit the number and extravagance of the gifts, and teach selflessness. Unfortunately, such value are easier to eludidate than to implement.
79. Are there any other gift giving holidays in Judaism?
A. Yes. On Purim, it is traditional to engage in shalach manot, the sending of gifts, usually small gift boxes or bags of hamentaschen (triangular nut or jelly filled pastries said to resemble Haman’s three-cornered hat, nuts, raisins, candies.
80. What kinds of Chanukah decorations are there?
A. The only decoration needed is the chanukiah. But that has not stopped American Jews from adorning their homes with blue-and-white lights (the colors of the Israeli flag and symbolic colors of the Jewish people) or hanging cutouts of Jewish stars, chanukiot, dreidels, and other Jewish symbols in their windows.
A more recent personal decoration, in a nod to our Christian neighbors’ ability to make fun of themselves, is the ugly Chanukah sweater.
There are also hybrid symbols, combining Chanukah and Christmas symbols into one, as in chanukiot depicting Santa and the reindeer.
81. What is a Chanukah bush?
The tradition of decorating with boughs of evergreen trees has existed since pagan times, when they would adorn their homes with branches as reminders of the coming spring. In some pre-Christian cultures, these plants that did not lose their leaves even in the depths of a cold winter were good luck symbols.
There is no such tradition in Judaism, although there is a late winter-early spring minor holiday, Tu B’shvat (question #14), called the “New Year of the Trees.”
A disturbing trend is the idea that the chanukiah should be displayed in places that have a Christmas tree. The chanukiah is a ritual object; the Christmas tree is a secular symbol. It would be far more appropriate to use the dreidel. Or even more appropriate would be not to try to make an equivalency between Christmas and Chanukah. They are not parallel holidays.