A visit to any googled website relating to similarities between Hanukkah and Christmas yields only one answer: there aren’t any. The only similarity most theologians or otherwise experts list is the two holidays occur at the same time of year.
But is that all there is to it? A deeper look at both traditions shows there are two definite similarities. And it may not be a coincidence.
The holiday is to remember the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after they were successful in battling the Syrian-Greeks. There is a deeper story to this, however.
The Syrians-Greeks took over the Temple in 168 B.C. and dedicated it to their god, Zeus. This was just the beginning of atrocities committed against the Jews. Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus ruled in 167 B.C. that maintaining Judaism was punishable by death.
There was a village near Jerusalem, Modiin, that became a hotbed of persecution. In that village, Greek soldiers gathered the people to tell them they must worship the Greek gods, attempted to force them to bow to a Greek idol, and also tried to force the villagers to eat pig – which goes against Jewish dietary law.
One particular target was the Jewish High Priest Mattathias. The Greeks knew if they could force Mattathias to submit, all others would follow. The priest refused on all accounts.
Another villager came forward, trying to resolve the situation peacefully, and offered to do the forbidden acts in place of the High Priest. Mattahias became angry the villager was willing to defile his faith and submit to the Greeks, so he killed the man with a sword. Then, the High Priest lashed at the Greek officer and killed him.
This moment created an opening for Mattathias’ five sons and others to launch an assault of remaining Greek soldiers and left all dead.
Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the mountains.
Soon, word spread and other Jews found them, wanting to fight the Greeks and take the land back. This group, known as the Maccabees, were successful and recaptured their land from the invading ar
Their return to the Temple was saddened by the fact the Temple was defiled by the pagan practices of the Greeks. It had to be purified. There were certain Jewish troops set to return it to its former spiritual glory. To do this, ritual oil must be burned in the Temple’s menorah for eight days.
There was just one problem. The group only had enough oil to last one day. In faith, they decided to go ahead with the menorah lighting. Then a miracle occurred. The one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days. All eight candles were lit and burned the entire time.
Most Americans know the story of Christmas. An angel came to Mary to tell her she would be the mother of God’s child. Joseph, incredibly skeptical of Mary’s story at first, decided to maintain the engagement after being visited in a dream and the two traveled to Bethlehem from Nazareth to be counted for taxation.
There was no room at any of the inns, so they were given a stable by an innkeeper where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
So, what is similar? The themes.
Victory over Evil
The Greeks committed evil against the Jewish people and, although they suffered, they were victorious over their enemy. In the Christmas story, Jesus as the Christ-child was sent to defeat evil and offer believers a way out of the penalties of sin, giving those who follow him victory.
Victory from an Unusual Source
In the Hanukkah story, the first claim to victory came from the High Priest Mattahias. Since priests are from the Judaism line of warriors, the Greek soldiers never expect him or his sons – also in the priestly line – to initiate an attack. No doubt, it took them completely by surprise.
The Christmas story has victory coming from a baby born to common Nazareth parents. He was a carpenter working out of Joseph’s shop. Most thought the Messiah would come from some other more elite status. In fact, people challenged Jesus and his followers on this point as he started his ministry.
“What good came come out of Nazareth?”
Yet, Christian teachings demonstrate that this carpenter, a commoner from a ill respected town, was the won who held the keys to the universe and ultimate victory.
The Hanukkah story has the miracle of the one day of oil lasting eight days. With the Christmas story, the miracle is the pregnancy of a virgin to birth the savior of the world.
In the Hanukkah story, the lighting of the candles is incredibly important because lighting the eight candles for eight days was the only way to purify the Temple from the Greek’s use of it. Light, in essences, saves and restores.
With Christmas, the wise men followed a star – an extremely bright an unusual light – to find the baby.
Light is an important theme of Christmas. Jesus, the Christ-child, is called “the light of the world,” as it was his destiny to guide humanity to God. Some Christian traditions for Christmas are to put up holiday lights and decorate trees with lights and all that sparkles.
It is interesting that both celebrations come during the darkest time of year. The days are short and winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is Dec. 22. Perhaps, both societies focus on light in their celebrations because it is recognized as something desperately needed and longed for during the winter season.
Jesus said two things that are important about light. One, that each person has a light within and how brightly it shines depends on that person. The other is that a person’s inner light affects, draws others, and exposes the darkness.
Perhaps, as both Jews and Christians celebrate this year, all can let inner lights shine a little brighter in a world that seems to be – at times – dark both physically and spiritually.