Dear Rabbi Fried,
As a mother, every year I am challenged 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?
What you and many others are facing is truly a challenge. The reality is that we and our children are surrounded by the culture of the country in which we live. 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. Some scholars of religious history maintain that many of the customs and celebrations of Christmas are based upon the celebration of Hanukkah, which predated Christianity by hundreds of years. According to these scholars, in their desire to attract Jews to Christianity, Christian leaders established this holiday at the same time of year as Hanukkah, with many similarities, hoping it would break down the barriers of Jews to enter their fold. Hence, they established the kindling of lights, which are an embellishment of our Hanukkah lights. The original 12 days of Christmas are a twist on 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.
Here’s the irony: There are studies which show that more Jews observe Hanukkah than any other Jewish holiday. Some sociologists explain the reason for this phenomenon is that many Jews consider Hanukkah their “Jewish Christmas.” How ironic it is that the very holiday which is largely an imitation of Hanukkah should serve as the reason for Jews observing its true source.
(The irony continues: Many, if not most, of the familiar Christmas carols which so define the contemporary holiday were actually composed by Jews. “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “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. This concept is borne out by the nature of the miracle of the menorah. The miracle of the menorah was performed with a flask of olive oil. The symbolism of the oil is that when it is mixed with water, eventually the oil will separate and rise to the top. So, too, the Jews were not assimilated into the Greek society and culture around them. They eventually separated and rose back to the top, remaining true to their connection to God and to each other.
The last thing we would expect is for Hanukkah to become 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, with a subtle separation from our surroundings. Only when we fully recognize and appreciate this uniqueness and separateness can we serve as a light unto the nations.
I would recommend you visit some of the many wonderful Jewish websites that 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. Sites like Aish.com and Chabad.org, to mention a couple, provide reading material, videos, cartoons and many multi-media opportunities to bring Hanukkah alive to your family and friends.
On Hanukkah, we begin lighting with only one candle and ascend to lighting more and more lights, night by night. May Hanukkah be a time that all Jews will ascend and grow in their observance and pride in their unique Jewish identity, 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,