Part of our own adult learning initiative here at Woodlands includes my spending a half-hour or so during each of our religious school PACT programs engaging in a bit of learning just with parents. I recently participated in a conversation with 4th grade parents about whether Hanukkah and Christmas were secular holidays or religious holy days. It seemed such a productive dialogue that I’m including some of the information here, so you can consider the question for yourselves.
Hanukkah is commonly thought to be the commemoration of a military victory by the Maccabees over the Greco-Syrian armies in 164 bce, after which we rededicated (a Hanukkah, in Hebrew) the Jerusalem Temple, only to discover there wasn’t enough oil to keep the ner tamid (Eternal Light) burning for the eight days it would take to bring new oil from the Negev Desert in the south. This "miracle," however, seems to be a myth fabricated some 300 years after the Maccabees, thought up by rabbis whose communities were living under the yoke of Roman oppressors not at all pleased that Jews were celebrating the Maccabean overthrow of their Greek oppressors. The oil-story fooled the Romans and saved quite a few Jewish hides. Problem is, it fooled us too. We forgot that Hanukkah is really about giving thanks to God for aiding a committed, but tiny, band of human rights activists in its battle against the mighty Syrian army for religious freedom. In Hanukkah’s central prayer, Al Ha’nisim (For the Miracles), God is praised, but not for supernatural intervention through a cruse of oil. Rather, we thank God for the natural miracle of the indomitable human spirit that would prefer death to physical or spiritual enslavement, and can sometimes succeed against all odds in restoring justice to our world. Placing the Hanukkah menorah in our window each year makes a powerful statement that we too would stake our lives on the right of every human being to live a life of religious freedom. Those tiny lights reflect the brightness of our own spirits, of our pride in being just a bit different, but also of our being willing to take a stand for every people’sGod-given right to be different.
Christmas has undergone quite a transformation here in America. Not only do many Jews consider it a secular holiday, but so too many Christians, particularly those who question the divine birth of Jesus. And thanks to a highly successful promotional campaign by the Coca-Cola Company in the early 1900's, Santa Claus exited church-lore and became an immensely popular figure in American secular folklore. Nevertheless, a strong case remains for Christmas being not a holiday, but a holy day. Consider the following. The Christmas tree is a significant and potent religious symbol. Its wood is symbolic of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified, and its evergreen branches symbolize Jesus’ resurrection and immortality. The silver tinsel embellishing its branches is also known as "Angel's Hair," and symbolizes the heavenly hosts attending Jesus’ miraculous birth. The Christmas colors of red and green symbolize the blood of Jesus shed at his death upon the Cross, and his eternal life through resurrection. Mistletoe is a kind of mini-Christmas tree, evergreen to honor the immortal Son of God. The holly wreath which adorns so many front doors represents the crown of thorns that Jesus was made to wear on the Cross — its little red berries represent drops of blood from Jesus’ body, and evergreen again to honor his immortality. The ornaments adorning Christmas trees were originally apples, reminders of the downfall of Adam and Eve which, according to Christian tradition, placed the stain Original Sin upon every human being, a stain removable only by Jesus’ saving power. (By the way, Jewish tradition views the "sin" of Adam and Eve as theirs alone; each of us is born with a clean slate, free to choose good or evil in our lives ahead.) The Christian community, then, each December 25th, celebrates the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached goodness and peace on earth and will someday return to make that peace a reality. It is a beautiful and meaningful statement of religious faith which the Christian community marks with religious acts of tree-decorating, gift-giving, singing and nativity scenes.
So the information is now in your hands. What do you think? Are Hanukkah and Christmas secular holidays, or religious holy days? At this season of lights, may all our lives be filled with the warmth, wisdom and faith of tradition and God. May we renew our commitments to the dreams and visions from days of old that, one day, if we will link our arms and our destinies, all humankind will live together in the bright light of friendship and peace.
Rabbi Billy Dreskin