THE REAL HANUKKAH/CHRISTMAS DILEMMA
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
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
Messiah's advent was God's invasion into enemy territory. Y'shua'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. Y'shua 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).