At sundown today, the 21st of December 2008 and the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar begins the celebration of Hanukkah. So pull out your menorah and light the lights, it’s the Jewish Christmas right?
Not exactly. It does share a common ancestor, the Roman celebration of the birth of Sol, the unconquerable sun. The same day that Christianity later instituted as the birthday of Jesus. The 25th of Kislev does not always coincide with the Roman calender but the seasonal significance is the same. Solstice is the annual dark night of the seasons and also the turning point of returning light. Historically, Hanukkah commemorated the overthrow of the Greeks by the Maccabean resistance fighters and the restoration of the desecrated temple. Partial origins of the Holiday are described by the Rabbis in the Talmud,
On the twenty-fifth of Kislev the eight days of Hanukkah begin, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest. It contained only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit with that oil for eight days.
A VIDEO of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz on the Historical Symbolism of Hanukkah
Therefore every year the menorah is lit, eight lights to commemorate the eight days of light in the Temple and a ninth to provide a radiance for practical use, being as none of the eight lights may be used to any end but for reverence and remembrance. A kabbalistic menorah is depicted at the top of the page, in a mystical sense, pronunciation of the letters transforms the speaker into a channel for the sacred, or the flame of illumination. Similarly, the lighting of the Hanukkah lamp can be seen to reflect the soul engulfed by the radiance of divine presence.
I have cherished the spirit and messages of Judaism for years now and believe in many of its lessons. The light of this season and this year is now coming to an end and yet the world is threatening to grow darker. Still, I hold out the hope of a lasting light, one that will provide us with wisdom and compassion in the year to come and prevail long enough to see us through to the renewal of ourselves and this world. May we find peace within ourselves and tolerance amongst our brothers and sisters, cherishing new found hopes and discarding the dross of fear and alienation.
Most of the information here is taken from Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays by Arthur Waskow.
See here for a fun post on ‘Eco Hanukkah.’