A giant menorah stands in front of a Christmas tree at the Brandenburg gate to celebrate Hanukkah in Berlin December 16, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This year Hanukka and Christmas – except for the eastern rites – coincide. The Greek Orthodox, Copts and Armenians observe Christmas on January 6. But 2016 marks the fourth time since 1900 that the first night of Hanukka has fallen on Christmas Eve, December 24.
The reason for this occasional conjunction is the difference between the Hebrew calendar, which is lunar, and the Gregorian calendar, which is solar. Hanukka begins on the 24th of the Hebrew month of Kislev and Christmas Eve is December 24. This relatively rare coincidence has generated much comment abroad, seeking to combine the festivities under the name “Chrismakkuh” – but this trendy attempt at a combination doesn’t add meaning to either observance, especially in the land where the historic antecedents of both holidays originated.
Nearly 200 years before the birth of Jesus that is celebrated at Christmas, the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks marked the first recorded battle for religious freedom. The rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem provided the name of the holiday, Hanukka, the Feast of Dedication.
This year’s observances of the two holidays take place in the context of a Middle East in upheaval, with untold suffering caused by the genocidal terrorism of Islamic State and the ongoing war in Syria. While both celebrations feature colorful lights, they symbolize as never before the imperative to drive away the darkness.
The illumination should begin at home, where some living in the Jewish state are so insecure in their identity as to be repelled by the common Christmas decoration of a colorful tree. Last week, for example, Rabbi Elad Dokow, the rabbi of Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, forbade students from entering the student union building because it was decorated with a Christmas tree.
A fitting response to this was made by Father Gabriel Naddaf, the leader of the Christian Empowerment Council, which encourages Christian Israelis to enlist in the IDF and integrate into society. “Your God is also our God,” he wrote to Dokow, saying that Christianity is no longer a threat to Jews. “And from you [Dokow], it’s expected that you will act toward unity and not divisiveness and segregation.”
Christians in the Middle East are particularly in need of light and hope. In Iraq, for example, the world’s oldest Christian community has been devastated over and over by war and terrorism. In 2003, some 1.6 million Christians lived in Iraq – today fewer than 150,000 remain.
In Egypt, a year of attacks on the Coptic Christians – who comprise about 10% of the population – culminated this month in a suicide bombing by an Islamist terrorist in Cairo’s Copt cathedral that murdered 25 worshipers and wounded some 50.
But the Islamists don’t speak for Islam. A Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mazhar Shaheen, attended a special mass in the damaged St. Mark’s Cathedral in a show of solidarity to ease tensions between the country’s Muslims and Christians.
“In the name of Allah, the merciful, I’m here to greet my Christian brothers and stress that the Egyptian people has always been a tolerant and loving people.
We also always like to use these moments to insist that Egypt is one country,” he told the ceremony.
Looking throughout the Middle East today and despite shameful examples like the Technion rabbi, Israel has a lot to be proud of when it comes to religious tolerance. Israel, the Jewish state, is the only country in the Middle East where all religions can practice their faiths freely and without fear of persecution.
It is a place where last night, Jews lit their menorahs and Christians held midnight mass. On Friday, Muslims ascended the Temple Mount and prayed at the Aksa Mosque while the Baha’i gardens and shrines in Haifa received visitors.
Like every country, Israel is imperfect, and after 69 years it remains a work in progress. This holiday season and the coinciding of Hanukka and Christmas is an opportunity to look out at the wider region and appreciate our great nation.
Hanukka Sameah and happy holidays to all.