by K.W. Leslie, 29 November

The Hebrew calendar doesn’t sync with the western calendar. That’s why its holidays tend to “move around”: They don’t really. Not like Easter, which is determined by the full moon, and therefore doesn’t sync with Passover like it oughta. In any event Hanukkah does fall on the same days every year: 25 Kislev to 2 Tevet. (And in 2021, this’d be sundown 28 November to sundown 6 December.)

Christians sometimes ask me where Hanukkah is in the bible, so I point ’em to this verse:

John 10.22 KJV
And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.

The “feast of the dedication” is Hanukkah. The word חֲנֻכָּה/khanukká (which gets transliterated all sorts of ways, and not just because of its extra-hard kh sound) means “dedication.” Other bible translations make it more obvious—

John 10.22 NLT
It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication.

—because their translators didn’t want you to miss it, whereas other translators figure that’s on you.

Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday which celebrates the Hasmoneans’ rededication of the temple in 165BC.

History lesson time. Alexander “the Great” of Macedon had conquered Jerusalem in 332, and once he died the Greek Empire was split between his generals. Seleucus Nicator took the middle eastern part and made it the Seleucid Empire. Two centuries later, Antiochus Epiphanes (or Antiochus 4) became its king, and decided the Jews were gonna conform to the Greek paganism of the rest of his empire. He banned circumcision, desecrated the temple by putting a statue of Zeus in it (figuring, as Grecian pagans did, they all worshiped the same gods under different names, so YHWH was Zeus anyway), and sacrificed a pig on the altar. Many Jews capitulated, but one family of priests, the descendants of Asmoneus (hence “Hasmoneans”) would not.

Judah Maccabee (KJV “Judas Maccabeus”) in particular. His nickname מַכְבִּי/Makheby means “extinguisher” (of persecutors), although a lot of folks insist it means “hammerer,” which sounds more badass. The Hasmoneans frequently get called the Maccabees, even though only Judah had that nickname. Anyway, Judah’s insurgency actually worked, and drove the Seleucids out of Jerusalem. Not once and for all; other battles eventually got Judah killed. But at least they were out of the temple, which the Hasmoneans rededicated, and rebuilt the altar from scratch. Then they celebrated a feast. That’d be Hanukkah.

You can find the story in the apocrypha:

2 Maccabees 10.1-8 KJV
1 Now Maccabeus and his company, the Lord guiding them, recovered the temple and the city: 2 But the altars which the heathen had built in the open street, and also the chapels, they pulled down. 3 And having cleansed the temple they made another altar, and striking stones they took fire out of them, and offered a sacrifice after two years, and set forth incense, and lights, and shewbread. 4 When that was done, they fell flat down, and besought the Lord that they might come no more into such troubles; but if they sinned any more against him, that he himself would chasten them with mercy, and that they might not be delivered unto the blasphemous and barbarous nations. 5 Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Casleu. 6 And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles, when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts. 7 Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. 8 They ordained also by a common statute and decree, That every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, when the Hasmoneans lit the temple’s lamps, they hadn’t enough oil for more than a day. But God miraculously stretched it out for eight.

The Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Ta’anit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings. Shabbat 21b.10

Most people emphasize the miracle, which is why Hanukkah is often known as the “festival of lights” instead of the “festival of the dedication.”

Hanukkah customs.

Hannukah is actually a minor Jewish holiday. It’s not Jewish Christmas, although it’s totally borrowed ideas from the more popular holiday. (Decorating stuff in blue is a very recent thing; somebody realized since the Israeli flag is blue and white, why not decorate things in blue and white?) In Christian-dominant countries it’s become a much bigger deal, ’cause Jews feel the need to emphasize they’re not Christian… even though they’ll totally participate in secular Christmas activities, ’cause they’re fun.

Customs include the hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah: Unlike a usual Jewish menorah, which holds either seven candles or oil lights, the hanukkiah holds nine—one for the eight days, and one for the center light. A new light is lit for each day. Prayers and hymns are said. Small gifts are given, or charities are given to. Fried foods (’cause the miraculous oil, remember?) are eaten: Potato pancakes, jelly donuts, fritters, you name it. Kids get chocolate coins. There are games played with a dreidel, which you spin to win nuts, pennies, or more chocolate coins. But Hanukkah isn’t a Sabbath-like holiday: You can still go to work and school, although Israeli children get the week off.

Christians rarely celebrate Hanukkah, unless they’re Jewish or have Jewish family members. For the most part we ignore it and pay more attention to the Christmas season. But many Christians, like we do with Advent, choose to celebrate Hanukkah as a much better alternative to all the secular Christmas hoopla: It’s more God-focused, more spiritual, more historical, more of an emphasis on God’s providence. Plus there’s chocolate and donuts. (Better: Chocolate donuts!)

Christian customs tend to include reading John 10, and emphasize how Jesus is the light of the world, Jn 8.12 as the Hanukkah lights remind us. And though it’s not so much the emphasis, we ought also to remember Jesus declared us the light of the world, Mt 5.14 provided we get out there and let everyone know the Lord has come—and, as we recognize during advent, is coming again!