How Hanukkah Saved Christmas
The Miracle of the Maccabees
What does Hanukkah have to do with Christmas, you might ask? Yes, they happen about the same time. Yes, both have lights and presents and parties and sugary treats. But the connection goes much deeper than that.
I grew up celebrating Christmas – the Christmas gifts, the Christmas pageant, the Christmas movies and stories and songs. In snowy Iowa it was always fun shopping for presents around the small town square with the snow on the ground and the Christmas music playing – think Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. Christmas was all around me, but I had never heard of Hanukkah. Nevertheless, it is a part of our heritage as Christians, just as much as it is for Jews.
Today, December 13, is the first day of Hanukkah. It actually began last night at sunset and continues for eight days, ending at sunset on December 20. So last night we lit the first candle on the Hanukkiah (a nine-branched menorah) and will continue to add another candle each night until all eight (nine including the shamash, or “servant candle”) are burning brightly together on the evening of December 19.
Why do we do this? The answer takes us way back in history, to a time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments. At this time, the Kingdom of Judea was part of the Seleucid Empire of Syria. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes became king in 175 BCE, he invaded Judah, looted the Temple, halted all services and outlawed the practice of Judaism. Eight years later, Antiochus erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple, banned circumcision, and ordered pigs to be sacrificed on the altar. Two years after that, a group of Jewish rebel warriors called the Maccabees rose up and defeated the Seleucid Empire. Finally, when they were able to reoccupy the Temple, they were determined to see it cleansed (new altar, new vessels, etc.) and rededicated. It is from this dedication that we get the Hebrew word “Hanukkah”.
But Hanukkah is supposed to celebrate a miracle, right? Not just a military victory. Stay with me, and you’ll see it.
When the Maccabees won there was only enough olive oil to light the Temple menorah for one more day. It would take eight days to purify the Temple, and produce new oil, but it was impossible to do with only one day’s worth of light. So the miracle is this: that tiny jar of oil lasted not one, but the full eight days.
That alone would be astonishing enough, but the greater miracle was the upset victory of the Maccabees over the much larger and better-equipped Seleucid army. Think of Antiochus like a pre-figuration of Hitler. He would stop at nothing to destroy the Jewish people, and wipe their memory from the earth. But like Hitler, and all others with such goals, he failed. Israel was spared for the coming of Messiah Yeshua, only a few generations thereafter. Israel’s purpose, to be a blessing to all nations, was preserved. The light in the Temple, instead of being extinguished, grew to illuminate the entire world.
“Christmas”, if you will, was saved.
As the angel declared to the shepherds watching their flocks by night, “Behold, I proclaim Good News to you, which will be great joy to all the people. A Savior is born to you today in the city of David, who is Messiah the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11
You and I can celebrate the birth of Yeshua in our day, because of the great victory the Maccabees achieved in theirs. So let us join the angels in singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth shalom to men of good will.” Luke 2:14