Every year around the end of November, shops and websites fill with green and red, celebrating the arrival of Christmas. However, there is also a fair amount of blue and gold, harkening the beginning of another holiday, Hanukkah. Most people know that Christians celebrate Christmas, while Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, but the truth actually goes much deeper than that.
Along with Easter, Christmas is perhaps the most important day on the Christian calendar. Christians celebrate Christmas as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be the Son of God and the Messiah, or Anointed One, of Jewish tradition who will restore the world. However, the history of the holiday itself is especially intriguing.
What Does It Commemorate?
As was mentioned earlier, Christians believe that Christmas marks the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Considering that Christians believe Jesus to be the Son of God, fully God and fully human, this was no mean feat!
According to the Gospels, the four primary sources of the life of Jesus within the Christian canon, Jesus was born in a stable in the town of Bethlehem, a city south of Jerusalem. Jesus’s parents, two Jewish people named Joseph and Mary, were in Bethlehem due to a census being called by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Historians have established that the Romans were fond of censuses, largely for tax purposes.
Being born in a stable and laid in a manger, a feeding trough for livestock, fulfilled a great deal of prophecy within the Jewish tradition of how the Messiah would come back. Adding to the appeal of the story were two sets of visitors. The first came the night of Jesus’s birth, and was a group of shepherds. They had been tending their flock and were told by a chorus of angels to go to Bethlehem to see the savior.
The other is a group of traveling wise men, referred to as Magi in some traditions. Interestingly, Magi is the plural form of the Persian word “magus,” a term used for priests within the Zoroastrian religion (a monotheistic faith that predates even Judaism). Their arrival, and offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (the latter two are perfumes used in religious ceremonies), helped to underscore that Christianity was to be a religion for all people, not just a new sect of Judaism.
History of Christmas
A key tenet of the traditional narrative of Christmas, that shepherds found the infant Jesus while being led by a chorus of angels while they were tending their flocks, is a bit difficult to reconcile with the climate of the Eastern Mediterranean; after all, that would be the time of year that they would be closer to home. Instead, it is likely that Christmas’s date was settled upon due to a need to make as many people as happy as possible.
That does not take away from the significance of the day, of course. Even today, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas some days after Protestants and Catholics.
Through the intervening centuries, Christmas became an exceptionally popular holiday due to its role as a mid-winter feast; peasants in Europe could know that they had made it halfway through the winter, which in places like Germany or Scandinavia, was often cause for considerable celebration!
When Is It Celebrated?
Christmas is celebrated by the vast majority of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches on December 25. Orthodox communities celebrate the date up to two weeks later. Unlike many other religious holidays, the date for Christmas is set according to the Western calendar, so it does not move around.
In the Roman Catholic and many Protestant traditions, the 24 days before Christmas is called Advent, while the 12 days following is known as Christmastide. On January 6, Epiphany is celebrated, the date that remembers the arrival of the Wise Men. The Epiphany season of the church then lasts until Ash Wednesday, which marks the arrival of Lent.
How Is Christmas Observed?
The celebration of Christmas can be divided into two categories. First religious events will be discussed, which alludes to the steps taken by individual denominations to honor the season. Then, because of Christmas’s mark on Western culture, the impact of cultural events will be discussed.
Most churches mark the season of Christmas with a mood of awaiting the savior of the world, namely through the season of Advent. In churches that mark Advent, candles will be lit for each Sunday leading up to the fourth Sunday of Advent. It is important to note that this is most common in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Mainline Protestant traditions.
Much more universal is what comes closer to the actual day of Christmas. Most churches will have a Christmas Eve service, on or near December 24, during which the story of the birth of Christ is told. This is often accompanied by considerable musical talents, with organ music and the singing of Christmas carols both common. Among most every denomination, however, is an opportunity for the children of the church to present a play or musical that allows them to be front and center.
Due to the massive role that Christmas has on Western cultural life, it is not surprising that the holiday has an outsized role on Western culture. Here are just a few of the traditions that exist:
- Throughout much of Europe, Christmas markets set up in cities of all sizes, permitting the community to come out, celebrate the season, and purchase unique crafts. These are a major draw for tourists in some places, like Germany’s Black Forest.
- The personage of Santa Claus has grown from a little-known saint to being a universal symbol of Christmas. Every year, millions of children put stockings out to be filled with sweets while hoping for presents under the tree. All Santa asks for in return is a year of good behavior, and maybe some cookies and milk.
- Likewise, gift giving is a major part of Christmas, with workplaces having parties for the express purpose of allowing gifts to be exchanged.
Outside Christian Areas
Interestingly, Christmas is still remembered outside of Christian areas. In the Islamic world, the day is noted as being the birth of Jesus, whom Muslims regard as being one of the greatest prophets of human history. In Japan, the idea of gift giving has metamorphosed into one that focuses on couples.
Not surprisingly, Hanukkah’s origins go back further than Christianity. Note that Hanukkah and Chanukah are the same, with the CH being a matter of transliteration out of Hebrew and Yiddish. Additionally, whereas Christmas helped to establish Christianity, Hanukkah helped to keep the idea of a Jewish people going. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah commemorates the importance of faith and continuity to the Jewish people.
What Does It Commemorate?
Interestingly, the story of Hanukkah only predates Christmas by less than two hundred years. According to the Hebrew Bible, a term preferred by Jewish people to describe what many Christians call the Old Testament, the Greek rulers of Jerusalem had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. Following a revolt by the Jewish people, the Temple needed to be cleansed, but there would not be enough holy oil to keep the menorah in the Temple alight, a crucial part of the ceremonies that would help cleanse the Temple. Only enough oil for one night was found, yet it was sufficient to burn for eight days, allowing for a new supply of holy oil to be secured.
As with Christmas, there is considerable historical evidence of the events described by the creation of Hanukkah. Namely, the Hellenistic Greeks who ruled the Eastern Mediterranean around 166 BC did have to put down a revolt by Jewish dissidents, following the decision to desecrate Jewish places of worship.
The story of Hanukkah appears in the Hebrew Bible, but not in most Protestant versions of the Old Testament. However, Catholics and Anglicans include more books of the Hebrew Bible in the Apocrypha. It is found in 1 Maccabees of both the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha.
History of Hanukkah
Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah went through a period of being treated as only a minor holiday. Following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, it would be nearly two thousand years before the Jewish people would again emerge as a geographic state. Therefore, despite making up a sizable part of the population throughout much of Central Europe, the idea of commemorating a holiday that involved overthrowing a temporal master was heavily suppressed.
Instead, it would be the end of World War II, the Holocaust, and the founding of Israel that would move Hanukkah back into the mainstream. Combined with a furthering of American consumer culture, for which Christmas was in many ways a perfect storm of a holiday, and Hanukkah would find plenty of momentum with which to rebound back into a place of honor.
When Is It Celebrated?
The exact dates of Hanukkah move around every year, as the dates themselves are calculated according to the Hebrew calendar. Interestingly, the Hebrew calendar is a combination solar and lunar calendar, so while the dates move, Hanukkah is always towards the end of the Western year.
As given the celebration of the ability of the oil to last for eight nights, the celebration of Hanukkah lasts for eight days and nights. During this time, the workload of many people, especially housework for women, is considerably curtailed.
How Is Hanukkah Observed?
Hanukkah involves eight nights of rituals, typically carried out both within each individual household and within the synagogue as a group. A crucial part of this is the lighting on the menorah, but this time with nine lights. One light is lit for each night of the celebration, but the central light, typically held a little higher, is lit every night. This light, the shamash, is also used as a source of light during the Sabbath, if necessary.
More than anything else, Hanukkah has traditionally been about the food. Given the rich and diverse culinary traditions that Jewish people around the world have adopted, there is considerable variety. One common theme is that fried food, again honoring the place of oil, should take front and center. As a result, two of the most common Hanukkah foods are latkes, or potato fritters, and jelly doughnuts.
Additionally, Hanukkah is a time of considerable family celebrations, including plenty of music. A favorite memory for many children, and the young at heart, is to spin a dreidel, or cube-shaped top, whose every side acts as a reminder of the miracle of Hanukkah.
Finally, gift giving is common during Hanukkah, as it is during Christmas. Gifts can be given any night, and often come from a variety of different family members. One particularly beloved tradition that harks back to pre-war days in Central Europe is the idea of Hanukkah Gelt, or Hanukkah money. Children receive money, often in small sums, from parents, grandparents, and other relatives and friends.
America and Israel Compared
Interestingly, Hanukkah is a bigger holiday in the United States than it is in Israel, the two states with the world’s largest population of Jewish people. While still celebrated there, Israeli Hanukkah is less high profile than Yom Kippur or Passover. Meanwhile, in the United States, Hanukkah is often on par with Passover as one of the most visible Jewish holidays.
Despite being held at similar times of the year and focusing on gift giving, there are some major differences between Christmas and Hanukkah. Christmas marks the arrival of a person who begins the Christian faith, while Hanukkah marks the continuation of the rituals and ceremonies of the Jewish faith against all odds. Additionally, while Christmas is one of the most important days on the Church’s calendar, Hanukkah is not nearly as important as Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah. Finally, while Christmas has found almost global recognition, Hanukkah remains a holiday that many even with Jewish friends do not fully understand.