Chanukah and Christmas: A legacy of bad timing
Admit it. It is bad timing, these two very unique festivals of two very different faiths colliding in time and space. Even when our Hebraic lunar calendar separates the two by a week or so, the commercial heralding of both in our consumer-focused society continually blends the two, as if Chanukah were some Jewish version of Christmas. Both having “light” as their theme doesn’t help matters either. And most people are oblivious to the fact that Chanukah preceded Christmas by more than four centuries and has nothing at all to do with the birth of Jesus or of anyone else. If there is any relationship between the two, it would be with the pre-Christian pagan rites of the winter Solstice, as opposed to the latter-day Christian adaptation of those rites to Church doctrine and mythos.
The irony of this situation is that Chanukah is a celebration of the triumph of the Jewish spirit against oppression and suppression of the very kind that was continually heaped upon us by Christianity itself more severely and for far longer than the short-lived Greco-Assyrian persecution of the Chanukah epic.
In the early days of Roman occupation of Judea, two centuries after the Chanukah thing, a curious Roman noble visiting with the sages of Israel asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Kor’cha the following: “We have our festivals, and you have yours. Granted. So what happens is, that when we are rejoicing, you are not, and when you are rejoicing we are not. When, pray tell, can we both rejoice together, at the same time?” Rabbi Yehoshua replied: “When it rains.” The Roman’s eyebrows raised in puzzlement: “When it rains?” The rabbi nodded nonchalantly: “As Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyyah taught, ‘Greater is rainfall than even the revelation of Torah at Sinai, for the gifting of Torah at Sinai was a joyful event for the Israelites alone, whereas the gift of rainfall is joyful for all peoples, and for all the plants, trees, birds, and wildlife’” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 13:6 and Midrash Tehilim 117:1).
If we are so bent on joining with others in celebration of something in common, we ought to celebrate what we indeed do have in common rather than contrive admixtures of ingredients that at their roots are antithetical to one another. Like the ancient rabbis put it: “When a pig lies down, it shows off its cloven hooves, as if to say, ‘See how kosher I am?’” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 65:1).
When people automatically wish you a “Merry Christmas” don’t be afraid to correct them if you are not Christian. The age-old assumption by far too many that most everyone is Christian, or that everyone across the board celebrates Christmas, is not only arrogant and misleading, but it is also a convenient cover-up of tragic truths that linger beneath all that “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Mankind” rhetoric. How many devout and Jew-friendly Catholics, for example, are aware that even at this very moment the Catechism of their Church preaches anti-Jewish diatribes? To mention just one: Jews bear a terrible burden because they willfully insist on being an obstacle to the well-being of the rest of humanity, preventing the arrival of the Messiah and human salvation because of their “unbelief” in Jesus (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 674).
“It is likened onto a bear who was richly adorned with fine gold, silver, jewels and other attractive ornaments. Upon seeing the bear, some onlookers shouted: ‘Jump at the bear and seize riches for yourselves!’ But one wise person declared to them: ‘Alas! It is sad that you only notice the shining adornments. I notice the fangs and claws’” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 86:4).
My recommendation: Since the original Chanukah celebration was intended to make up for not being able (or allowed) to observe the eight-day harvest festival of Sukkot, let’s reverse it and celebrate Chanukah during Sukkot from now on.