I always thought that the close proximity of Chanukah to Christmas was a bizarre coincidence. Certainly it worked out well for holiday-season shopping, and it's great that Jewish kids in America don't feel left out. But it never occurred to me that perhaps these two holidays are actually connected in a very deep way.
For those who are unfamiliar with the origins of Christmas, you might be surprised to learn that it was actually introduced first by the Roman pagans as the holiday of Saturnalia. It a week-long period of lawlessness celebrated Dec. 17-25 when Roman courts were closed and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring others. The festival's customs included many l'chaims, so to speak, and people parading through the streets singing and dancing while wearing, or not wearing, whatever they pleased.
In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. After all, who would want to part ways with a festival like that? Early Christians succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans to Christianity by promising them that they could continue to celebrate their festival.
The festival of Saturnalia was a celebration of the "Sun God." It came during the dead of winter at the exact point when the nights were at their longest and about to begin to get shorter. To them is was a sign that the Sun God is regaining his strength, a great reason for a wild careless celebration.
Now let's view this from a Jewish perspective. We are all familiar with the traditional Jewish idea that time is fused with potential. Holidays come around at certain times each year not only because they are commemorating certain events, but because locked in those days is the potential to bring about certain improvements in our lives that relate specifically to that time of year. In fact, we believe that the victories we are celebrating were able to come about exactly when they did because of the potential that is locked into that specific time.
Chanukah comes during the dark days of winter. It is a time when many of us feel that our dreams and hopes of the High Holidays have already drifted away into the darkness. We feel disconnected from our Father in Heaven and disappointed in ourselves for not living up to what we thought we would be. Over the past two weeks many people have shared with me concerns about their health, concerns about their livelihood, concerns about troubling times in America and in the Middle East and other personal challenges.
On Chanukah we enter our homes and light a candle. We take one small step to rekindle the hopes and the dreams that might have faded away. And then we light another, and another, and by the time we're done we have a Menorah lit up with the transcendent number eight that defies the natural order of the world (as we discussed last week) and brings new energy into our lives.
And in a very clear non-coincidence, the days of Christmas, a holiday once marked with violence and lewdness, has become a time when families unite, when the world seems "merry" and lit up, and people talk about their hopes and dreams. And for the Jewish people, we continue to modestly light the Menorah in our homes and sing our beautiful Chaunkah melodies, knowing that, whether or not the outside world acknowledges our contributions to the civilized world, our message of hope and of renewal has been heard loud and clear and we have been, quite literally, a "light unto the nations."