“When you compare Christmas to Chanukah, there’s no comparison. Christmas is great. Chanukah sucks!… First night you get socks. Second night, an eraser, a notebook. It’s a Back-to-School holiday!” – Lewis Black
Chanukah, the red-headed stepchild of holidays, gets a bum rap, especially from the likes of one of my favorite comedians, Lewis Black.
True, it is eight days, but the good stuff usually only comes on Day One. You save on electric bills as your Gentile neighbors make their wattage meters spin like records on a turntable. Yet you’re still jealous that your house is the only one enshrouded in darkness. Christmas means all the Chinese food and movie palaces are for the taking (unless you live in Five Towns on Long Island, where you fight for spots with the rabbi’s family with 15 children), but nary a single Chanukah special on the tube to compete with Charlie Brown or the Grinch.
Is it me, or does the Grinch story seem a little anti-Semitic? He does, after all learn, that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store.”
Maybe a closer look at this holiday would provide a better appreciation—or simply a further excuse to push it to the margins.
It still surprises people that outside of the United States, Chanukah is a very minor holiday among Jews, even in Israel. It celebrates a dubious miracle following a victory chronicled in a highly controversial appendix to the Hebrew Scriptures. The victory in battle is very much a pyrrhic one, as Israel would be conquered yet again within a century, never to see the light of independence until the 20th century. In fact, the warfare was probably not a freedom fight at all, but rather a civil war between different factions of the same faith.
Today’s Guide to the Holidays has little to do with dreidels, gelt, latkes or Adam Sandler. Rather, let’s look closely at the event—and the source material—that spawned this winter celebration.
Here’s the story in a nutshell:
The Selucid Empire of Syria, a Hellenized former client state of Alexander the Great, had ruled Israel since the 3rd Century BCE. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of Syria, ordered that an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple of Jerusalem, and that pigs would be sacrificed to the Greek deity. To a Jewish population that had seen a steady stream of persecution since Antiochus’ coronation, this was the last straw. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, assembled his sons, including Judah Maccabee (which means “Judah the Hammer”), to lead a 2-year revolt against the Syrians.
The revolt was successful, and the Temple was rededicated in 165 BCE. But according to the story, there was a problem. There was only enough olive oil in the menorah, the candlestick in the Temple, to burn for one day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days before new supplies were found. Hence, the Festival of Lights is born.
One of the great misconceptions of this story is that it’s Biblical. It isn’t really. The Maccabee revolt of the second century BCE is chronicled in the books called First and Second Maccabees. These books, along with a set of others, are a set of writings that have puzzled biblical scholars for centuries. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians label them the Deuterocanonical books, meaning that they are important, but not that important to become full parts of the Bible.
Jews and Protestants are more blunt—they call them Apocrypha, which literally means “unknown.” They don’t know where these books fit in the grand scheme of things, nor can scholars agree on their origin or authenticity. Some say they were written in Hebrew, others in Greek. Saint Jerome claimed they were written in Hebrew AND Greek, using transliterated Aramaic with Greek characters.
Yet for all its dubious history, 1 and 2 Maccabees has a glaring omission: what about the miracle of the oil in the menorah?
That story is left largely to the Talmud, the great post-diaspora Jewish commentary on scripture, and one of the great masterpieces of religious scholarship in history. Like so many parts of Judaica, the menorah miracle comes with debated, detailed instructions on how to celebrate the holiday. It is, to be sure, the only complete depiction of the Chanukah celebration as we know it.
Now that the source material is out of the way, on to the historic event itself, the Jewish revolt. This leads to a somewhat less rosy view of the Maccabees today: less George Washington, and more Ayatollah Khomeini.
Many modern scholars do not view the Maccabee revolt as a freedom struggle against an oppressive monarch, but rather a civil war between orthodox and reformist factions of the Jewish religious establishment. It begins with Alexander the Great. His conquest of Israel resulted in a Hellenization of Jewish society. Greek architecture, Greek philosophy, Greek culture, even Greek names were permeating throughout Israel, as they did to other areas touched by Alexander’s iron fist.
Even the Hebrew alphabet, its difficult characters notwithstanding, has an all-too-familiar connection to Greek. Letters such as Aleph (Greek=Alpha), Bet (Beta), Gimel (Gamma), Dalet (Delta), Lamed (Lambda), etc. show a tight connection, even if the derivation is up for debate. It’s probable that Greek and Hebrew developed from a common linguistic ancestor, such as Semitic or Phoenician. Or, as some would argue, Alexander’s Hellenizing machine further Greeked up the Hebrew alphabet as many elite started to Hellenize their own lifestyles.
Mattathias and the Maccabees were not happy about this.
At first, in keeping with Alexander’s customs, Antiochus IV allowed religious freedom, and did his best to mediate a middle path between the Hellenized Jews and the more traditionalist Jews of the Maccabee faction. Yet when the traditionalists staged open rebellion against the Syrians (BEFORE the 167-165 BCE revolt), Antiochus openly supported the Hellenist Jews, suppressing traditional religious practices and relaxing certain restrictions—especially the dietary laws. Look at the story of Hannah and her sons in 2nd Maccabees, and you’ll never look at a pork chop the same way again (2 Macc 6:18–7:42).
Hence, the Maccabee revolt can be seen as a fundamentalist backlash against the intermingling of Greek and Hebrew cultures that happened so easily in other parts of the Hellenistic world. The Greekness of the new society—which also pitted rich against poor, young against old—led more conservative Jews like Mattathias and Judah Maccabee to see this change as a path toward damnation. It’ll hurt when some Jews read this, but it sounds a lot like the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s.
So does all this mean Jews shouldn’t celebrate Chanukah? Of course not.
It simply means that under all the manic craziness, the fights of latke recipes, the drawing straws as to who’ll light the menorah, even little boys roughhousing over a dreidel, lies a complex, often controversial story that’s important, but not as important as holidays with more religious and historic meaning—the High Holidays and Passover.
It’s just the damndest luck that the Festival of Lights had to occur at around the same time as your Gentile neighbors stringing their lights for Christmas.
Tonight, however, is your night. Have a happy Chanukah—and save me some gelt.
Mr. D and the “War on Christmas”: A Response to Ed O’Donnell’s 11/25 NY Daily News Column
Around mid-December, a memo circulates around my school that could be seen as a broadside in the ever-resurgent “War on Christmas.”
Once you get past the logistical minutia about cleaning up rooms, timetables for parties and whatnot, a curious sentence pops up, to the effect of
“Under no circumstances are children to be removed from parties due to behavior. Even if you do not celebrate it, these children are entitled to Christmas celebrations.”
Not holidays, but CHRISTMAS celebrations. One can’t be too sure if this is intentional or not. However, the message was loud and clear: keep your skepticism, doubt and alternative beliefs at the door. In this community, it is Christmas—and
ONL Y Christmas, not Chanukah or even Kwanzaa—that matters.
I thought about this as I read a recent Daily News column by Ed O’Donnell, associate professor of history at Holy Cross. In his piece, O’Donnell finds a new appreciation for the much-maligned phrase “Happy Holidays.” Speaking as a church-going Christian himself, O’Donnell claims that Happy Holidays “embodies both a fundamental American value and, strange as it may sound, one of Christmas’ core religious ideals.”
It demonstrates the spirit of American inclusiveness, as it is free to interpretation by any faith, and also focuses on inclusivity’s Christian message—a message clouded by “a grotesque exhibition of materialist excess,” in O’Donnell’s words.
Some disclosure is in order. I’ve met Professor O’Donnell a number of times through lectures, workshops and grant programs. Heck, I even piloted one of my curriculum units for him. O’Donnell is a first-rate historian, a magnificent writer (I recommend his book Ship Ablaze, about the 1904 sinking of the General Slocum) and one of the finest lecturers I’ve ever met.
Even better—and take my word for it—Ed is a stand-up fellow, a really nice guy.
That said, I do take issue with O’Donnell in this particular survey of the “War on Christmas.” Two points to consider:
(1) His exalting of “Happy Holidays” as a triumph of American inclusivity over religious bigotry fails to take into account Christmas’ own status as a persecuted holiday in the early history of our republic; and
(2) Though it is perhaps unintentional, O’Donnell’s appreciation for “Happy Holidays” might be construed as creating a new orthodoxy, pulling down one golden calf in place of another.
The first point is, in my humble opinion, an egregious omission on O’Donnell’s part. Of course, he is correct in mentioning our country’s history of violence over religion, via the anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements of the mid-19th century. Yet Christmas did not have an easy road to acceptance: often just as treacherous as the Mormon trek towards the salt flats of Utah.
Since the Reformation, Protestant groups saw Christmas as one of the prime targets for assault in their war against the Roman Catholic Church. The pomp and pageantry of Christmas was reviled as a papist extravagance bearing the “marks of the beast.”
This anti-Christmas attitude was superimposed on the New World. England’s Puritan government had severely curtailed the holiday in 1647 and banned it outright in 1652. Plymouth abolished Christmas, as did Massachusetts Bay in 1659—with a huge 50 shilling fine for non-compliance. In Of Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford recalls the Christmas of 1621, which was a regular work day at the Separatist colony:
Even after the bans were lifted in the late 1600s, Christmas was rarely celebrated outside of immigrant—mostly German—communities in New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as the Anglican gentry of Virginia. Massachusetts and the rest of New England kept to the old superstitions and prejudices of the holiday. Christmas, in the Puritan view, was vain, extravagant, Papist, elitist, and royalist.
In fact, a major victory in the American Revolution would not have been possible if Christmas were celebrated more widely in the colonies. The 1776 Christmas victory over the Hessians at Trenton would have turned out differently if both sides—and not just the German mercenaries—were hung over after holiday celebrations.
It wasn’t until 1870—after the Revolution, western expansion, immigration waves, industrialization, and a bloody Civil War—that Christmas finally became a federal holiday, thereby shaking off the vestiges of Puritan intolerance.
To then bury the name “Christmas” under the verbal veneer of “Happy Holidays” can be seen as intolerant as well—intolerant of the arduous road Christmas took to gain acceptance in the United States over fear and superstition.
This leads me to my second point. I’m in full agreement that the conservative blowhards who push “Keep Christ in Christmas” while turning their heads at its crass commercialism deserve a sound comeuppance. Though my views tend towards the conservative side, I’m no holy roller—I’m less of a churchgoer than Professor O’Donnell, who goes weekly. The right has more important things to worry about than labels and names on the best time of year.
That said, the secular left is not getting off easy. O’Donnell notes that “Happy Holidays” embodies a uniquely American virtue: “respect for each and every citizen’s right to their own religious beliefs (or nonbeliefs). “ Does this also include the right to not say “Happy Holidays”? Or are those who adhere to their particular beliefs in exclusion to others subject to their own shunning by a secular establishment?
I’m not picking on O’Donnell per se, since I understand his intentions with the piece: to express an appreciation for an unpopular phrase of the season. Yet this sentiment of inclusiveness can lead many to construe it as the focus for a new standard of exclusiveness. The “Happy Holidays” crowd, in their zeal to include everyone and respect all, may in fact be disrespecting and persecuting those who see in their individual holidays a source of identity and cohesion—EVEN IF their celebrations may seem exclusive to others.
Does this mean that the “War on Christmas” is legitimate? Not really; Christmas is not going away anytime soon. Yet whenever a phrase like “Happy Holidays” is touted as supreme or better than something else, it tends to create an aura of authority—an aura that inherently excludes those who disagree.
George Orwell famously said that “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This, in many ways more so than inclusivity and respect, is the true republican virtue of American society. Sometime this season, I will hear someone tell me “Happy Holidays.” I may not like it. I may feel like cracking a two-by-four over the bastard’s head. Yet I have to respect his right to say it—and conversely, that SOB has to respect my right to tell them “Merry Christmas” if I feel like it.
So this holiday season, say “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Chanukah,” “Joyous Kwanzaa,” or whatever you feel like.
Just don’t try to shame someone for mistaking you for a believer and slipping a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Chanukah.” If you don’t know what that can lead to, re-read George Orwell’s magnum opus to refresh your memory.
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