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FEASTS/ Christmas and Hanukkah: rooted in historical events, not sentimental dreams

December Wed 28, 2011

Photo Imagoeconomica  Photo Imagoeconomica

Two great religious feasts are being celebrated during these days: Christmas and Hanukkah. Both have been assimilated by the current American religiosity. They have been separated from their origin in historical facts, historical events. They have been sentimentalized away and added to the great melting pot.

Let me first summarize the origins of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. What follows is excerpted from last week's issue of The Week review.

Of all the Jewish holidays, Hanukkah may be the one with the most contemporary resonance. It tells a story of conflict over assimilation — of the struggle for Jewish national independence — and of the challenges faced by a Jewish state surrounded by enemies and supported by the world's greatest ... Christmas is a holiday whose meaning has been superimposed over the centuries, with Nordic rituals (Yule logs, Druidic evergreen trees) overlaid upon the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Hanukkah, by contrast, is a holiday whose meaning has been ripped away, as generations of rabbis sought to contain and suppress a story too upsetting and dangerous to fit conveniently into later Jewish tradition and practice.

The historical events at the root of Hanukkah are as follows:

More than a century before Christ, the little territory that is now Israel was subject to a powerful neighbor, an empire stretching from what is now Syria deep toward what is now Afghanistan. This empire was ruled by the descendants of one of the generals of Alexander the Great. In an effort to integrate their sprawling domain, these rulers demanded that the Jews practice some elements of Greek cults in their Temple worship.

These demands triggered internecine conflict among the Jews. Some thought it wise to obey. Some even thought that the Jews had something to learn from their Greek-speaking neighbors. Others militantly rejected Greek customs and foreign rule. Disagreement led to assassination, repression, civil war, and ultimately outright rebellion. The rebels prevailed. The family that led the rebellion was nicknamed the Maccabees, and Hanukkah was the Independence Day of the kingdom they founded.”

Today, however, the encounter with an ideology of religion as an instrument of assimilation into a pluralistic society has changed the meaning of Hanukkah. I cannot speak for the Jews, but to me the meaning of Hanukkah comes across, not as a reminder of the cost of fidelity to the Jewish identity and faith, but as a celebration of light, peace, and communal solidarity - indeed, close to what Christmas has become. (One Jewish commentator writes that Hanukkah has become the consolation for Jewish children who fear that Santa Claus does not love them.)

The Hanukkah holiday touches every central question of modern Jewish existence. It deserves a fuller telling — and a better celebration than a fried potato pancake (a Hanukkah dish).

The gospel of Christmas too has been deprived of its link to its historical origins. The liturgy of the Church, however, protects us from totally forgetting the events behind the festivities. I find it awesome how the liturgical calendar itself follows Christmas Day with the death of the first martyr, not to mention the celebration of the massacre of the holy innocents.

Together with the Jews, we must resist the reduction of our faiths to sentimental dreams.



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