Every winter season, Chanukah and Christmas seem to occur at the same time. This has led many who are not Jewish to think it must be as big a holiday as Christmas is to the believers in Christ as Savior. It is, however, a minor holiday in the Jewish Calendar and in Jewish history and only started being more important in the mid-20th Century. In fact, there was a time, not too long ago, when both Chanukah and Christmas were celebrated relatively quietly, in church and in private homes with family and friends. It wasn't until Gimbels and Macy's found a way to ramp up the gift giving aspect of Christmas that both holidays seemed to become more about the gifts than about either holiday's true meaning. At a time after WWII when Jews were trying to become an accepted part of the American fabric, Chanukah became a vehicle for "keeping up with the Joneses".
This is always an interesting time of year, especially when the Gregorian calendar and the Hebrew Calendar are not in sync. In a way, I prefer it this way. It gives Jewish children a chance to appreciate Chanukah and find joy in its simplicity and its message of freedom. I think when it comes at the same time as Christmas, our kids get too caught up in the commercial side of Christmas and do not learn the lesson of the Maccabees. Chanukah is such a minor holiday in the Hebrew calendar. It would go unnoticed if it were not forever tied to Christmas due to the temporal relationship and the pressure Jewish parents have felt to have their children feel a part of the season like so many other Americans. We call this the "December Dilemma". Rabbi's all over the U.S. discuss this in their synagogues and temples every year. For the most part, they agree that it is almost insulting to our Christian neighbors to put Chanukah in the same category as Christmas, an extremely important holy day for Christians.
Putting all of the controversy aside, Chanukah is a joyous holiday. It is a time that we celebrate the re-dedicating of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of the King of Syria Antiochus IV and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil". According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
The following is from the December 2011 Koleynu (All About Us) from Beth Shir Shalom, in Santa Monica, CA, where I was a congregant before I moved to Asheville, NC. It is written by Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels and expresses the true meaning of Chanukah:
"There's and old joke that gives the definition of a Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill
us. They didn’t. We won. Let’s eat.” As with any good, lasting joke or bit of sarcasm, it
works because it’s based on reality. We all know that the foundation of so many Jewish holidays and holy days is an attempt by an oppressing force to subjugate or even eliminate us.
Add it up and the Jewish calendar looks like one adventure movie after the next in
which the hero (that’s us – the Jewish people!) goes through a maze of “near misses”
over and over until the end when the enemies are vanquished and he gets the girl (or she gets the guy.) But it’s so much more than that.
So what’s the reason behind all this commemoration and celebration – besides the
food? What’s the reason we ceremonially and symbolically recall all of our past experiences as a people, the slavery, the oppression, the prejudice and our eventual survival (especially in shadow of the Holocaust)? For some, the recollection becomes an end in itself. Others become cynical – and just eat.
For me, the sum total of Jewish experience (thus far!), shouts into our Jewish lives the ultimate mission of the Jewish people – “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (Deut.
16:20). Every injustice we have known pushes us even more to ensure that we are on the front lines fighting injustice for whomever is experiencing it now...
Let’s start with Chanukah. Chanukah is about justice in so many ways! At its core, Chanukah is about religious and cultural sovereignty and integrity and there are still so many peoples in the world who are suffering ethnic oppression and worse. But the connections to justice don’t stop there. The lights of the Chanukiah (Chanukah menorah) themselves are symbols of the struggle for justice and how the flame of that struggle can burn strong for a while but it is a further struggle to maintain the flame. In this world with the state of the environment increasingly fragile, light is symbolic of our responsibility for how we consume the resources of the world and the consequences of our choices.