Dear Rabbi Fried,
Every year I am challenged as a mother by the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas. How can we possibly compete, lighting our candles, with their stunning display of colorful lights, filling the malls, decorating their houses and their trees? What do I say when the kids ask me if Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas?
— Marcia P.
What you and many like you are facing is a real challenge. We and our children are surrounded by the culture of the country in which we live, and if we try to “outdo” those around us we are doomed to failure.
We must instead, while acknowledging the compelling nature of the local culture, focus on the beauty of what we have as Jews.
I have always been struck by what I consider one of the greatest ironies of Jewish history. Scholars of religion have shown that many of the customs and celebrations of Christmas are actually based upon our celebration of Hanukkah, which predated Christianity by hundreds of years. In their desire to attract Jews to Christianity, its founders established this holiday at the same time as Hanukkah, with many similarities, hoping it would break down the barriers and entice the Jews to enter their fold.
Hence their lights, which are an embellishment of our lights. The original 12 days of Christmas are a twist of the Torah reading of Hanukkah, which outlines the gifts of the 12 heads of the tribes during the consecration (Hanukkah) of the original tabernacle, over 12 days.
Studies show that more Jews observe Hanukkah than any other Jewish holiday. Some sociologists explain this phenomenon that many Jews consider Hanukkah their “Jewish Christmas.” How ironic is it that the very holiday which is an imitation of Hanukkah should serve as the reason for Jews observing its true source!
(The irony continues to grow: Many, if not most, of the familiar Christmas carols which so define the contemporary holiday were actually composed by Jews! I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas; Winter Wonderland; Santa Clause is Coming to Town; Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer; Let it Snow, Let it Snow; Silver Bells; You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch, to mention a few, were all composed by Jews!)
To make it even more ironic, Hanukkah was enacted as a celebration of the Jews’ withstanding the Syrian-Greeks attempts to assimilate the Jews into Greek culture and society.
The miracle of the menorah was performed upon a flask of olive oil. The symbolism of the oil is that even when mixed with water eventually the oil will separate and rise to the top. So too the Jews were not assimilated; they eventually separated and rose back to the top, to their connection to God and to each other. The last thing we would expect is for Hanukkah to be a way to identify with the culture around us, the antithesis of its own essential message!
Hanukkah is a time to focus upon our uniqueness. Only when we fully recognize and appreciate this uniqueness can we truly serve as a light unto the nations!
I would recommend you visit some of the many wonderful Jewish websites which offer a wealth of material you can utilize to explain the beauty of Hanukkah to your children and will enrich your own appreciation of this special time. Aish.com and Chabad.org, to mention a couple, provide reading material, videos, cartoons and many multimedia opportunities to bring Hanukkah alive to your family and friends.
On Hanukkah we begin with one light and ascend to lighting more and more lights, day by day. May Hanukkah be a time that all Jews will ascend and grow in their observance and pride in their unique Jewish identity, and their connection to the illumination in our Torah and rich tradition!
A joyous and meaningful Hanukkah to you and all the readers.
Dear Rabbi Fried,