Chanukah: The Evolution of Holidays

I love the way Jewish holidays change over the centuries to meet the challenges of history. Passover was once a sacrifice and a nighttime lamb BBQ with storytelling. Then we lost the Temple, and had to reinvent the celebration in the form of a Greek symposium banquet, the hottest educational technology of its time. They insured that it wouldn’t get too Greek (or, heaven forbid, Roman!) by taking the afikomen, the after dinner entertainment that often got out of hand, and reissuing it as a broken piece of matzah. Voilá: The Passover seder!

Chanukah lay dormant for centuries, a little festival with fried food and candles. The rabbis of old didn’t want us to make a big deal of it, because we might get the idea that making war on our oppressors was a good idea. They bequeathed us a miracle story and somewhere along the line we began playing dreidel. Then a series of events in the 19th and 20th centuries brought Jews new challenges. For one, after the Holocaust, never again would we dare deal with anti-Semitism by waiting for a miracle. The Maccabees gained new relevance in the shadow of the Shoah and with the foundation of the modern State of Israel. For another, while Christmas had never been any threat to Jewish culture, the 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of a new festival: secular Christmas.

Christmas, too, had been a relatively minor affair for centuries. It was the feast of the birth of Jesus, layered on top of a popular Roman festival, Saturnalia. Then in the 19th century, British and American novelists and poets wrote about the holiday, recasting it as a holiday of family warmth, goodwill, and compassion, and downplaying the religious aspects. This began a process of popularizing Christmas. When business discovered that trees, decorations, presents and Christmas turkeys could set the cash register bells a-ringing, Christmas became big business. You can see the results in every shopping mall and city center. Devout Christians deplore the commercialization of Christmas (“put Christ back in Christmas!”) but secular Christmas has become a juggernaut.

Secular Christmas is now firmly planted in American popular culture, and it has spawned an entire season of frantic consumption. “Christmas comes but once a year” so there is pressure for it to be perfect, with no unmet desire, no unrequited fantasy. The tree must be brightly lit, the presents piled beneath, and if the credit cards get overloaded, well, it’s Christmas, after all!


And yes: I know there are families for whom secular Christmas is a time of warmth and light, who don’t max out their credit cards. I know that Christmas trees and Christmas mornings carry precious freight for many people: they are wrapped up with the fondest wishes for family love. I have no quarrel with them, for that is their tradition and it works for them. But it’s not the Jewish way of doing things.

We don’t have one big day in the year that must be perfect: even Passover, which probably comes the closest, happens over a week, and for most families, there are two seders to attend. We have Shabbat every week for family warmth and love, and for hospitality to strangers. If we really keep our full calendar of holidays, then we get a steady stream of small “Christmases” complete with Kodak moments. There are gifts of food to send at Purim, and a sukkah to decorate at Sukkot. There are festive meals again and again throughout the year. No holiday has to be perfect, because we have Shabbat every week.

In the 20th century in America, Chanukah has flirted with Christmas by experimenting with “Chanukah bushes” and adding gift-giving to the mix. When Chanukah tries to imitate Christmas, it loses both its Jewish character and the Jewish values deep within it. Chanukah at its best is about dedication to Jewish values and a resistance to idolatry, whether that idolatry is the worship of Zeus or the worship of consumer goodies.

Chanukah is equipped to challenge the darker aspects of secular Christmas. It is modest, where secular Christmas can be gaudy. It plays out over a week, instead of a single day that must be (and is seldom) “perfect.” Chanukah calls us to rededicate ourselves to Jewish values; secular Christmas pushes us to get the “best value.”

Chanukah is a big deal at our house, because it is pushback to secular consumer values, and most especially to the dark side of secular Christmas. We light the little menorah and say the blessings. We have an open house for our friends and the neighbors. We’re “advertising the miracle,” as it says in the Gemara, but the miracle we’re advertising is bigger than a jar of oil that lasted for eight days. We’re advertising the miracle that Judaism is still here, despite it all. And we’re dedicating ourselves to another year of living Jewishly.

We’re going to be doing something special for Chanukah at my home this year. More about that in the next post.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

16 thoughts on “Chanukah: The Evolution of Holidays”

  1. I remember the first time I read the ‘rededication’ story in Macabees I was struck by a number of things…. I found it really hard to imagine (today’s vibrant and bustling) Jerusalem completely deserted and the Temple in such disrepair that it took nearly a year to put to rights – and this for me is the miracle of the Rededication Story – it presents me with an opportunity to ‘choose’ to continue on this path – or not … ……. the other ‘show stopper’ is of course the curious question of how does one become ‘uncircumcised’?

    1. After the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Romans essentially bulldozed Jerusalem and then built a new city on top of it, Aelia Capitolina. They REALLY wanted to make a point about anyone messing with them.

      (Ick warning – don’t read if squeamish):

      Some Jewish men in the Hellenic period “reversed” their circumcision by drawing forward a remnant of the foreskin and stretching it to cover the glans.

      There. You asked, I answered. 😉

  2. I miss Christmas morning at my parents, but since I got to do it till I was past 40, I shouldn’t complain. It was strictly the ritual, b/c by the time you’re all that old, you know what you’re getting for Christmas. Except I never knew what Mom was going to do for stocking stuffers, which aren’t the big showy gifts, but the ones that require thought and whimsy, not money.

    I wonder if one could BBQ the lamb (sans sacrifice) and then have a seder? 🙂

    1. Some Sephardic Jews have lamb for the seder meal. Ashkenazim don’t eat lamb at the seder as a reminder that the Temple is destroyed.

      That said, it would be interesting to see a haggadah that allowed for the lamb BBQ, wouldn’t it?

      1. I can picture maybe doing a BBQ of a lamb in the afternoon and then using it as the main dish for the seder. With plenty of nice red wine to go with, of course.

    1. Isn’t it, though? That’s what I mean by Christmas being also a “minor holiday.”

      Hanukkah almost made it into Jewish scriptures by way of the apocryphal books of Maccabees. They are in the Septuagint (a translation made by Hellenistic Jews in Egypt during the time between the Maccabean Revolt and the Destruction of the Temple.) By the time of the finalization of the Tanakh, however, Jewish tradition had rejected the Books of Maccabees as scripture. That’s another way in which we can see the Jewish people changing their mind about the significance of the events we remember at Hanukkah.

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