Between Hanukah and Christmas – Comparing The Light Holidays Through Intercultural Perspective

The niche movie ‘The Hebrew Hammer’ opens with a flashback of Hanukah in the past – Mordechai, the only Jewish kid in the public school of NY, receives a plastic dreidel as a Hanukah present, while his Christian friends celebrate Christmas and receive luxury presents. After Santa Claus steps on Mordechai’s dreidel, the movie passes on to Hanukah at the present. 15 years later, Mordechai is known as ‘The Hebrew Hammer’, a Jewish superhero that is called for help when Santa’s son is scheming a plan to cancel Hanukah.

The uncoincidental proximity in the dates between Hanukah and Christmas gives us the opportunity to examine more closely the connection between them – to take a closer look on its similarities and differences, on the dilemmas and conflicts they arise and on the different approaches towards dealing with those conflicts.

The Anthropologist Girt Hoffstad claims that to every culture, as a characteristic of a group identity, there are external expressions that are all sourced in the same common world of values. Cultural patterns come to expression in a whole ray of ways, that can also be described in a hierarchical method of three layers –

·       Symbols – words, gestures or objects that acquire certain meanings that is relevant only within the cultural structure which they exist in. Symbols are the external layer and the most tangible part of the culture, and they are adapted relatively easily between culture to culture.

·       Heroes – Real or fictional characters, from the past or from our time, that express characteristics that are highly appreciated within the culture, and acts as role models.

·       Rituals – Social acts that are symbolic or ceremonial in their nature, that holds independent significations within the culture.

The values that are being expressed are the set of preferences that lies at the heart of the cultural patterns, from that the external expressions are being derived. That is why it’s interesting to examine and compare between the cultural events of the different cultures – to examine the story, the heroes, the symbols and rituals of the holidays in order to reverse-engineer them to determine those set of preferences and to compare those.

What is the story of Hanukah?

The story of Hanukah is documented within ‘The Books of the Maccabim’ – external books to The Bible that include within them the story of the Jewish rebellion against the Greeks, at 167 BC. During the tyranny of the Slavky king – Antiochus – there were special restrictions upon the Jewish synagogues, including a prohibition on the main Jewish traditions as circumcision, Shabbat rules and eating Kosher. The rebellion sparked in Modiin village, at the leadership of Matityahu the Hashmunai and his sons. At the peak of the rebellion Jerusalem was reoccupied by the Jewish people, and The Temple in Jerusalem was purified – a symbol to the reclaim of independence of the Hebrews.

(Credit: Ayelet Itzik)

Hanukah is the first holiday in the Jewish calendar that represent the centered narrative of the Jewish holidays – the Jewish people as a small and persecuted people, oppressed by foreign and hostile people, that constantly fight for its survival and independence, which time and time again is saved thanks to its religious devotion and\or by divine intervention for its favor. That narrative comes back at Purim (from Paras and Evil Haman), at Passover (from Paro and the escape from Egypt), and it’s even possible to make a claim that this is the basis for the Zionist narrative of ‘The Independence War’ of 48’.

So, we can witness that this narrative is implanted deeply within the Jewish Ethos, its heroes are the ‘Hahashmonaim’ and its symbols are representing renewable independence, mainly the Temple’s ‘Menorah’ (Oil lamp).

However, a close examination of the actual Hanukah’s symbols tell a different story.  

One possible way to approach the examination of the popular symbols and its conceptualization is to ask which imagery is linked to those concepts.
Today we have the accessibility to the world’s most developed search engine – Google, of course; we checked which pictures presented when searching the word ‘Hanukah’. This is may not be a scientific method of approach, however it reflects well popular culture. In this search we discovered that many of the pictures linked to Hanukah are pictures of the ‘Chanukiah’ (a 9-piece candle base).

The Chanukiah isn’t mentioned within the story of Hanukah, and the wax candles it uses weren’t in use at the time. Those are a more modern symbols of the holiday, developed with its traditions and rules, but they aren’t telling its original and main narrative. So how did Hanukah become the holiday of light? What is the connection between the story, the symbols and the set of values of Hanukah?

What is the story of Christmas?

Christmas, as known, is a Christian holiday, and at its core is the story of Jesus’ birth.
A similar search in Google of ‘The birth of the Christ’ presents a ray of pictures and drawings that describe the birth as tolled in ‘The New Testament’ – The parents, Josef and Mary, forced to move from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem by the orders of King Herod, however no place to sleep were found for them there, and that is how Jesus was born in a barn they crashed in. The witnesses to the birth were a bull and a donkey, and in some of the pictures even sheep and lambs. In many of the pictures there is also the star which twinkled in Bethlehem’s sky that night.

(Nan Phelps, 1950)

The narrative of Christmas includes the fundamental values and beliefs of the Christian religion, by them the birth of the Christ is a proof for him being the Messiah (redeemer), by the symbols and prophecy’s sourced in The Old Testament.
The symbols is not only that Mary allegedly was a virgin at the time of the birth, but the fact that the scene happen in Bethlehem, the city of King David, the barn animals that are witnessing the birth fit a prophecy in The Bible, and also the shining star reminds of Jewish redemption prophecy’s’.

A search for ‘Christmas’ tells a different story once again, when we get pictures of Christmas trees, lit in all their glory, mostly in red and green, usually on snowy background. Those are the familiar symbols of the holiday, aside the character of Santa Claus, his slide and his reindeers.  

Also in this case than, the connection between the main narrative of the holiday to its main symbols is flawed – it is possible to link the lights placed on the tree to the Christmas’ star, as we can link the lights of the Chanukia to the light of the Temple, but in both cases it’s a secondary connection, which isn’t fully represent the main narrative.

So, what is the meaning of those symbols? Do they at least have similar characteristics?

The fundamental symbol to both Hanukah and Christmas is the concept of light obviously, in its different forms of expressions – the lights on the Menorah and the candles within it, and the lights that are placed on the Christmas tree. The light is a universal symbol, and in fact it’s the first symbol in the story of creation – the common myth to both Jewish and Christian religions, and to most of the western culture – “In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good” (Book of Genesis).

We see how the very first quote in the Bible presents this symbol, and its significance:
Light = Good, Darkness = Evil.
Light is the most identified symbol of god and of the divine goodness, in Jewish mysticism and philosophy for generations, in similarity to many other religions. Accordingly, the light-holidays is being celebrated around the world, and as we already hinted, it’s not a coincidence that they all are celebrated around the same time of the year – the middle of the winter.

 ‘The Talmud’ (one of the essential Jewish sacred writings) is validating the connection that the ancient men have identified of drifts in the day’s length during the course of a year, to the decision of setting the date of the holiday of light – only a few days after the shortest day of the year. It is mentioning the lengthening of the days in the time of Teveth (4th month in the Jewish calendar), and do so – Hanukah is celebrated between the previous month and Teveth.
While lighting the candles by the instructions of ‘Beit Hillel’ (stream of commentary in the Jewish faith), by which every day of the holiday you are to add a candle to the Menorah, it can be interpreted as a metaphor to the lengthening of the duration of the day, and its strengthening after the shortest day.
In Christianity – the shortest day is placed at the 21th of December, and because the Christian dates are set by the year of the sun, Christmas is celebrated 4 days after the days starting to be longer, at the 25th.

Therefore we can see that Hanukah and Christmas are parallel by that they both commemorate historic events and religious narratives, but in fact the main motive that intertwine them – the light – is immortalizing a much older heritage.
In Hanukah, the light is connected to the Temple’s lamp, while in Christmas there isn’t even an obvious bond between the story of Christmas to the holiday’s symbols. The tree is probably an ancient symbol that signifying hope for the spring’s return and to the lengthening of the day, mostly in snowy Europe – A green tree in the winter is a sign of hope and rebirth.

And what is between those two holidays?

The relations between Hanukah and Christmas nowadays reflects two cultural phenomenon, that come to expression by Jews worldwide – the exposure and the desire to be similar or even to integrate on the one hand, while fearing losing their cultural uniqueness on the other.
More on that and the expressions of these conflict – in the next year.

Happy Light Holidays!