Hanukkah and Christmas

By Jon Simons, Reader and Associate Head for Research and Knowledge Exchange, School of Arts and Communications, Leeds Trinity University

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is a good illustration of how different cultural contexts shape the way the same festival is celebrated. Hanukkah is a winter festival, also known as the Festival of Lights, and its timing in the Jewish lunar calendar means it often falls close to Christmas. The festival is observed in religious terms by the nightly lighting of an nine-branched candelabrum over the eight days of the festival, beginning with one flame (plus a ‘servant’ light) and building up to all eight. In Jewish terms, Hanukkah is a minor festival. There are no holy days during it, (other than the regular sabbath) on which Jews are forbidden to work and there is only a slight variation to the daily liturgy. The festival commemorates events after those retold in the Hebrew Bible, namely the successful revolt in 165 BCE by the Maccabees against the Seleucid (Greek-Syrian) ruler Antiochus IV, who then controlled Judea (where modern-day Israel-Palestine is). According to the traditional story, mentioned in the Talmud, Antiochus banned Jewish religious practices and defiled the Second Temple by having pigs slaughtered on its altar – not at all kosher! Having defeated this Hellenistic descendant of Alexander the Great’s empire, the Maccabees set about rededicating the Temple but discovered there was only enough purified olive oil to light the holy candelabrum for one day but that it would take seven days to bring a fresh supply. The miracle of Hanukkah, according to religious tradition, is that the oil lasted for all eight days.

Latkes fried in oil

Growing up in the UK, I happily experienced Hanukkah as a time of receiving presents from my relatives. Some of them followed the older tradition of European (Ashkenazi) Jews of giving money instead but, hey, that was easily converted into more presents that were the same as what our non-Jewish friends were given around the same time. Hanukkah greeting cards began to be sold too – another alternative to a Christmas custom. When I moved to Israel I realized that Hanukkah did not have same associations for the Jews who came from the Islamic diaspora (called Mizrachim in Israel). Without the influence of commercialized Christmas in Western Europe and North America to shape the celebration, there were no piles of toys and games to mark the rededication of the Temple. Not only that, but even the usual formula of many Jewish festivals – they tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat – was observed differently. While Ashkenazi Jews in the Diaspora favoured latkes (fried potato pancakes) to mark the significance of oil for this festival, the preference of the Mizrachim for fried doughnuts became the cultural culinary choice in Israel.

Just as some Jews have adjusted their festive practice to suit Christmas, so have non-Jews – especially in North America – expanded their knowledge of Jewish festivals because of Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas. Those who want to create an inclusive winter holiday season keep in mind that not everyone is celebrating (only) Christmas. Does anyone want a latke with their turkey?

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