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Cover image via BigStock. Article photos taken by the author.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins on Christmas Day this year. In fact, the first night of Hanukkah, when the candles and lamps of the holiday are initially lit, will be on Christmas Eve. The eight days of Hanukkah in 2016 will run concurrently with the first eight days of Christmas. Because we celebrate both festivals in our family, we’ll not only have our two Christmas trees glowing brightly, but also five or six Hanukkah lamps alight. And along with our calling birds, French hens, and turtle doves, we’ll be enjoying the dreidel game, fried potato latkes, and sufganiyot – the famous and delicious Hanukkah donuts!
By now, the story of Hanukkah is familiar to more and more people. In the second century BC the Syrians had conquered Judea and occupied Jerusalem. King Antiochus IV despised the Jews and their religion, and sought to eradicate Judaism with severe decrees which outlawed Jewish practice on penalty of death. The Syrians defiled the Jewish temple, setting up pagan statues of Greek gods in it, and sacrificing pigs on its altar. In 167 BC a Jewish resistance movement, led by the Hasmonean family of Aaronic priests, went to battle against the Syrians, and in winter of 164 BC they liberated Jerusalem. The temple was rededicated to the God of Israel in an eight day ceremony.
A Talmud passage relates that only one jar of specially prepared and consecrated olive oil was found in the temple, left over from the Syrian damage. The seven-branched menorah – the large lamp that illuminated the temple’s main hall – was filled with the oil, enough to light it for just one day. But “a great miracle happened there,” and the oil burned brightly in the menorah for all eight days of the temple dedication. Recognizing this as a sign of God’s help in restoring the temple, the Jews celebrated the eight day dedication festival every winter from that time down to this day. The word Hanukkah is Hebrew for “dedication.”
The Hanukkah festival is a week and a day of joy and fun for Jews around the world, especially for children. The medieval tradition of parents giving children a few coins (called Hanukkah Geld) to buy treats evolved into the modern practice of gift giving over the eight days. And for eight nights the Hanukkah menorah is lit with candles or small cups of olive oil. The nine-armed lamp, called Hanukkiyah, has one arm for each of the eight days of the festival, and an additional elevated arm representing eternal light. Foods fried in oil, such as the potato latkes and the scrumptious donuts, symbolize the miracle of the oil so long ago. Playing for candy coins, children spin the small top called the dreidel, which has Hebrew letters on its four sides which stand for the phrase “a great miracle happened there.”
Because the Hanukkah festival, whether early or late, falls in the December Christmas season, it has become an admirable American tradition to appreciate the two holidays together, while never forgetting the unique meaning and message of each one individually. The term “Happy Holidays” does not diminish either Christmas or Hanukkah, rather, it celebrates the values of and rich heritage of both the Christian and Jewish communities. It’s not a replacement for “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” – it’s a recognition of their kinship. After all, even Jesus celebrated Hanukkah!
So, how is it that Hanukkah falls precisely on Christmas Day this year? Just three years ago, in 2013, the first day of Hanukkah was Thanksgiving Day! Media outlets chuckled about “Thanksgivukkah” instead of the more commonly heard “Chrismukkah” that often goes around in December. But Hanukkah doesn’t move around annually, at least not on the Jewish religious calendar. It always begins on the same day of each Jewish year – the 25th day of the winter month of Kislev.
To explain why Hanukkah bounces back and forth between late November and late December, we must recall that the Jewish religious calendar is a year of twelve lunar months, and runs only 354 days, each month beginning with the new moon and lasting 29 or 30 days. Contrast this to our secular solar calendar of 365 days, a tropical count which always fixes the four seasons in the same months. There is an annual difference of 11 days between the Jewish lunar and the tropical solar years. Without adjustments, Hanukkah, and other Jewish holidays such as Passover and Rosh HaShannah, would occur 11 days earlier with each passing solar year, and would also fall back from spring to winter, and from winter to autumn, out of their fixed tropical seasons.
The Hebrew Bible requires that Passover always occur in spring, and Rosh HaShannah at the beginning of autumn. So in ancient times, Jews began adding an additional 13th month (a “leap” month) to their calendar every two to three years, in order to keep Passover from slipping back into winter, and Rosh HaShannah from falling back into summer. The leap month, called “Second Adar,” keeps all of the Jewish holidays in their original seasons, including Hanukkah in early winter. But the adjustment does not fix those holidays to specific dates in our tropical solar calendar, so Passover can occur any time between late March and late April, and Hanukkah will begin any time between late November and late December. This year, in an unusual but quite meaningful coincidence, the 25th of Kislev falls on the 25th of December.
Because the Jewish religious day actually begins at sunset, rather than midnight or sunrise, the first night of Hanukkah occurs prior to the first day of Hanukkah. So this year, 2016, at sunset on December 24th, Jews around the world will light their lamps for the first night of Hanukkah, celebrating what they have come to call the “Festival of Lights.” And at the same time, on Christmas Eve, Christians everywhere will be remember the birth of the “Light of the World” in the little town called Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem. Without a doubt, it’s appropriate for all of us to exclaim that “A Great Miracle Happened There!”
Jeffrey R. Chadwick, of Brigham Young University, is Jerusalem Center Professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies, and Religious Education Professor of Church History and Jewish Studies. He is host of the annual BYU Passover Seder.