The shared roots of Hanukkah and Christmas

WASHINGTON — Growing up in the only Jewish family in my New Jersey neighborhood, I always felt left out at … Continued

WASHINGTON — Growing up in the only Jewish family in my New Jersey neighborhood, I always felt left out at Christmas. Our house alone lacked decorative lights, wreaths, and reindeer. Instead, we had a small menorah which, even when all nine candles were lit on the last night of Hanukkah, cast a modest light.

At school, we sang Christmas carols and the town’s center boasted a glowing tree. While I enjoyed watching my friends unwrap their gifts on Christmas morning, I was keenly aware that their holiday was unrelated to mine. While they were blessing the birth of a new faith, we were celebrating the survival of the Jewish people from spiritual annihilation.

I eventually moved to Israel where, each December, Hanukkah hymns jam the airwaves and Dec. 25 — unless it falls on the Sabbath — is a regular work day. Still, Israel has the only growing Christian community in the Middle East and, on Christmas, the country’s churches are packed. Near my home in Jerusalem, the road to Bethlehem teems with pilgrims, their path illuminated by festive lights.

So imagine my surprise when, decades later, I returned to America and found a similarly inclusive spirit. Menorahs and Christmas trees now stand side by side in public spaces. Storefronts wish all a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah. The president holds a gala Hanukkah reception in the White House while, outside the White House gates, a crane hoists a rabbi to light towering candles.

But such common displays of joy are more than ornaments. Christmas is intrinsically linked to the story of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah recounts the struggle of Mattityahu (Matthew), a Jewish leader who lived 2,170 years ago in the land of Israel. At the time, the country was under the rule of a brutal empire forcing the Jews to adopt its pagan rites. Mattityahu realized that the fate of the Jewish people, their faith and their civilization, was at stake.

He and his five sons — the Maccabees — rose up in revolt and regained ancient Israel’s independence. They rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem — Hanukkah in Hebrew means “rededication” — and reaffirmed Jewish values.

A century and a half later, according to Christian tradition, a child was born to a Jewish family in the land of Israel, in Bethlehem. He received a Jewish education and was reared on biblical values. Those hallowed ideas survived because the Maccabees fought so selflessly to preserve them.

Those same concepts helped form the foundations of our civilization. They inspired America’s Founding Fathers, and stir us still to protect human dignity. “If the Maccabees had not triumphed, world history would have developed very differently,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “In standing up for their independence, the Jews of antiquity defended values that were important for all mankind.”

Today, as in the Maccabees’ time, Israel upholds those values. But Israel does not stand alone. “These are not simply American or Western values,” President Obama recently told the United Nations, “they are universal values. … Freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture.”

The Maccabees would not have agreed more.

This holiday season, whether we and our families gather around a menorah or a tree — and are joined, perhaps, by our Muslim and Buddhist friends — we celebrate our freedom to believe. We rejoice in the values for which our forefathers fought and passed down for centuries. The lights that illuminate our homes burn bright for all of humanity.

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

Comments are closed.

Read More Articles

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

The End of Surveillance for New York Muslims — For Now

How American Muslims modeled the right response to systematic injustice.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.