It’s August. You run into a store for something and you see pumpkins, garlands of autumn leaves, scarecrows on sticks. You groan. You are trapped in the great American merchandising conspiracy. One glance at the color orange and they have you. A sense of urgency begins to creep over you. You shake your head, try to clear it, but it’s too late. You start skidding, heels first and screaming, into “the holiday season,” a succession of reenactments of:
Ancient observances of the supernatural (Halloween),
a harvest festival in New England 400 years ago (Thanksgiving),
the birth of a Hebrew child in the Middle East about 2052 years ago (Christmas),
the re-dedication of a temple in Jerusalem some 2185 years ago (Hanukkah).
This October and November, time-traveling on Quo Vadis?, we went back to the probable origins of Halloween and Thanksgiving, so let’s take a look back now at the origins of Christmas and Hanukkah, beginning with the oldest—Hanukkah.
Back in 165 BC, Judah Maccabee led an Israelite army in rebellion against a Syrian king who threatened not only the overthrow of the kingdom of Judaea, but also the annihilation of Judaism. The Syrians desecrated the Holy of Holies, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, by erecting there an altar to Zeus and demanding that the Israelites make sacrifices to the Greek gods.
In one of those brilliant and inexplicable military victories against a numerically superior enemy, Judah and his rebel forces defeated four succeeding armies of the Syrian king, took back their homeland, cleansed and purified their defiled temple, and re-dedicated it to their God.
Judah declared that this joyous occasion be celebrated by the Israelites forever after in an annual ceremony of re-dedication to their faith called “Hanukkah,” or in Hebrew, “dedication.”
The symbol of Hanukkah would be the Menorah.
And so, one hundred and sixty five years later, a Hebrew baby, about nine months old, sat on his mother’s lap with her arms and shawl wrapped warmly around him, and watched his father ignite the oil in the seventh cup of the family Menorah. It was the baby’s first Hanukkah.
The lights of the motioning flames glowing warmly in his eyes, the baby gazed calmly at the Menorah, symbol of his proud and ancient family heritage. Then he tilted his head back to look into his mother’s face and smiled.
Human beings instinctively associate light with understanding, knowledge, hope, even bliss. So it is appropriate that Hanukkah also be known as the Festival of Lights, and that the birth of this Jewish baby be celebrated with world-wide festivals of lights that, for a few days each year, make our little planet glow in the darkness of an unfathomable universe.
And yet, perhaps the most blessed moment of the entire holiday season is when we toast one another with sparkling champagne, wish one another health and happiness, and then whirling in a storybook world through an infinite universe, we kiss and hold one another close.