We know lots of interfaith families who celebrate holidays from different religious traditions, but often the dates are spread apart on the calendar. Several families have told us this year will be easier and more fun since both Hanukkah and Christmas align exactly, with first night of Hanukkah falling on Christmas eve, tomorrow night.
The first night of Hanukkah has fallen on Christmas even only four times in the last 100 years: in 1918, 1921, 1959 and 2005. The alignment this year results from the adjustments the lunar Hebrew calendar makes periodically to accommodate the solar Christian calendar.
“It happens every so often, usually because the Hebrew calendar is on the lunar cycle and 7 times in 19 years another Hebrew month is added to get everything in balance,” said Rabbi John L. Rosove, Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.
To say this confluence of the two holidays simply means an abundance of presents is to miss the point of these two winter holidays, both based on the pagan tradition of the Winter Solstice. Celebrated on December 21, the shortest day of the solar calendar, the Winter Solstice is all about creating light.
Other than timing on the calendar, the two holidays are not linked, each having very different religious and spiritual meanings.
For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world who brings enlightenment and hope. Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of freedom over religious suppression, and the finding of light within darkness.
How did the celebration of both of these holidays based on light become about giving presents?
“Hanukkah is not considered a “major holiday” in Jewish tradition, as are Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and the High Holidays,”explained Rabbi Rosove. “It is not even a holiday listed as an obligation in the Hebrew Bible. It is found the Apocryphal literature in the Book of Maccabbees.”
“That being said, Chanukkah is very important for American Jews and Israeli Jews,” said Rosove, who writes that for a variety of reasons, Hanukkah provides an opportunity for Jews to re-invent the holiday.
According to David Aaronson, Hancock Park resident and one of my other go-to religious scholars, gift giving at Hanukkah began as an American reaction to the emerging commercialism of Christmas. Following World War I, Jews allowed themselves to become more assimilated and giving gifts at Hanukkah was an opportunity to allow their families to feel more connected to the majority culture.
The aggressive materialization of Christmas, which began following World War II has continued almost entirely obscuring the religious meaning of Christmas and overwhelming Hanukkah as well.
“I would love to see us get back to celebrating Christmas for what it is and celebrating Hanukkah for what it is, ” said Aaronson.
Maybe this year, with the two holidays so close together, we can re-focus on the “light” instead of the flash.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.