Hanukka and Christmas- it's not all relative

The two festivals are unrelated and the fact that they occur at the same time is mere coincidence.

By RABBI RAYMOND APPLE
December 22, 2011 22:14
3 minute read.
Star of David tree-topper

Star of David tree-topper_311. (photo credit: Yourtreedition.com)

Some Christians have the idea that Hanukka is the Jewish version of Christmas. There are Jews who think that Christmas is the Jewish version of Hanukka. Both are quite wrong, since the two festivals are unrelated and the fact that they occur about the same time is mere coincidence.

Christmas is an exclusively Christian event and it probably gets the date wrong anyhow.

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December 25 is a pagan midwinter commemoration with no connection to Jesus’ real date of birth. The conventional year of his birth is also incorrect since he was born in 3 or 4 BCE.

Hanukka, with all its universalistic message of freedom of conscience, is a Jewish event. It has its own narrative, its own cast of characters, its own mode of celebration.

There is so much Christmas in the December air in most parts of the world that one can understand why some Jewish families get caught up in the hype, but the trilogy of Santa Claus, Christmas carols and holly leaves is totally out of place for Jews. Judaism does not pay homage to Christ, and his supposed birthday is irrelevant for Jews.

What about the idea of sharing each other’s festivals? Mutual respect does not justify glossing over our differences. Nor does it help to say disarmingly that Christmas is now a mostly secular celebration dedicated to the shops. If this is what the festival has become, the Christians should feel insulted, and Jews should not be part of the insult.

Serious people on both sides argue that both festivals celebrate light. True, most cultures have feasts of light. When Rev. Fred Nile started an organization in Australia called The Festival of Light, he hijacked a name from almost every people and faith.

The rhythm of time is central to every civilization; the contrast of darkness and light is a major cultural symbol. The Dead Sea Scrolls feature the conflict of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. In Judaism the theme of light punctuates biblical literature (“God said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light”) and is a dominant feature in Jewish practice and prayer.

It even led to conflicts such as the Karaite/Rabbinate controversy over whether lights should burn in a Jewish house on Shabbat.

Since the ner tamid (the Eternal Light) symbolized the Divine presence in the Jerusalem sanctuary, it is no wonder that the invaders of the Temple thought they could quench Judaism by extinguishing the light, and the victorious Maccabees adamantly answered back by making the rekindling of the ner tamid into a priority.

According to one school of thought, Hanukka echoes a pagan sun festival. Nonetheless it is a movable event, independent of the solar months. Solar calendars are an eccentric feature of ancient Jewish history with little enduring significance.


Christianity had an early doctrine of Jesus as “Light of the World” and used the idea of the sun as an analogy, with some of the saints regarding Jesus as the new or true sun. Associating his birth with midwinter invited the symbolism of a new flash of light. It possibly also reflected the Roman celebration of the unconquered sun.

There is no law against two religions having festivals of light at the same time of the year, but coincidence does not mean commonality.

We are two different faiths. We celebrate for two different reasons. Still, what preserved Hanukka and made it popular must be its proximity to Christmas. In a Christian milieu, Hanukka was almost a cultural compensation for Jews.

The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney.


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