Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, begins this Friday night at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” The eight-day festival in 2009 runs from Saturday, December 12, to Saturday, December 19. It is a holiday period of considerable significance, both religiously and historically, to Jews the world over. But it should also be of some importance to Christians, including Latter-day Saints, for without the events celebrated in Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas.
Here’s the story: The ancient Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted the name Epiphanes), and he set a goal to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon.
Seeking this goal with the Jews, Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and its Jewish temple, replacing the ceremonies that honored the God of Israel with pagan rites, and converting the edifice into a shrine for Zeus. The temple was defiled. Pigs were slaughtered on its altar by false priests in acts of disdain for the law of Moses and Jewish values.
Jewish religion in general was outlawed. The scriptures (books of what we call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Jewish ordinances and practices, such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became capital crimes. The historical book of 1 Maccabees reports that “the women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity would have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by a Hasmonean priest known as Judah Maccabee. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (around our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s temple mount, and liberated the temple from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy temple. According to rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests entered the temple they found only one jar of consecrated olive oil to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the temple holy place for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamp. The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This was seen as a miracle and a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Modern Jews do a number of things in their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukiah) is the main instrument of the lighting. Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the arms of the menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lit Hanukiah is placed in a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicey, fried potato pancakes) and donuts known as sufganiot. The frying in oil is a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the holiday season. And children often play a game with a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Sometimes Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the scriptural law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved.
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of interest to know that Jesus, who was genuinely Jewish, traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah. The Gospel of John reports, “It was . . . the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). Jesus honored the Hanukkah festival the same way he honored the Passover and other feasts: he taught the people of his own divine identity and mission.
Christians also ought to consider this: If there had been no Hasmonean revolt, and if Jerusalem and the temple had not been liberated and rededicated—if Antiochus and the Syrians had succeeded in obliterating Jewish religion and identity—then there would not have been a Jewish village called Nazareth, nor would there have been a Davidic Jewish village called Bethlehem. There would have been no Jewish nation awaiting the coming of that Redeemer. The entire setting for the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth would not have existed!
But, thanks be to heaven, there was a revolt, and the Jewish nation not only survived but thrived. And because of these events, the way was prepared for the first Christmas. It seems entirely appropriate at this season that we join in wishing each other “Happy Holidays.” Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all!