By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
As a mother, I am challenged every year by the proximity of Chanukah to Christmas. This is especially true this year, during which the two holidays coincide. How can we, with our candles, possibly compete with their stunning display of colorful lights that fill the malls, decorate the houses and are on their trees? What do I say when my children ask me if Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas?
— Shawn P.
What you and many like you are facing is truly 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. What we must do instead is acknowledge the compelling nature of the local culture while focusing 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 have shown that many of the customs and celebrations of Christmas are actually based upon our celebration of Chanukah, 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 Chanukah, with many similarities, but better. The hope among Christians was that making it better would encourage more Jews to enter their fold.
Hence their lights, which are an embellishment of our lights. Also their gifts, which started later, a takeoff of our Chanukah “gelt.” The original 12 days of Christmas are a replica of the Torah reading of Chanukah, which outlines the gift of the 12 heads of the tribes during the consecration (Chanukah) of the original tabernacle, which took place, appropriately enough, over a 12-day period.
Studies show that more Jews observe Chanukah than any other Jewish holiday. Some sociologists explain this phenomenon by suggesting that, as you mentioned, many Jews consider Chanukah their “Jewish Christmas.” How ironic is it that the very holiday which is a replica of Chanukah should be reversed and serve as the source of Jews observing Chanukah!
There are other ironies as well: Many of the familiar Christmas carols that literally define the contemporary holiday were actually composed by Jews! “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Let it Snow,” “Silver Bells,” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” just to name a few, were all composed by Jews.
The final irony here is that Chanukah was enacted as a celebration of the Jews’ success in withstanding the Syrian-Greeks attempts to assimilate them into Greek culture and society. The miracle of the menorah came about from a single flask of olive oil. Oil, even when mixed well with water, separates and rises to the top. The Jews, too, were not able to be assimilated; they eventually separated and rose to the top; to their connection to God and to each other. As such, the last thing we would expect is for Chanukah to be a way to identify with the culture around us. This would be the antithesis of the Chanukah message!
With this understanding, I would recommend you visit some of the many wonderful Jewish websites that offer a wealth of material you can use to explain the beauty of Chanukah to your children; that material will also help enrich your own appreciation of this special time. Aish.com and Chabad.org, to mention a couple, offer reading material, videos, cartoons and many multi-media opportunities to bring Chanukah alive to your family and friends.
On Chanukah, we begin with one light and ascend to more and more lights, day by day. May Chanukah be a time that all Jews will ascend and grow in their observance and pride to be who they are!
A joyous and meaningful Chanukah to you and all the readers.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.