This month, two winter holidays–Hanukkah and Christmas–converge on the same day: Saturday, December 24th, 2016 or the 25th of Kislev, 5777. In this great country of interfaith understanding and relations, two religious groups will begin celebrating two separate holidays at sundown. Thanks to the differing lunar and solar calendars, which we and our Christian neighbors follow, respectively, these things happen throughout our lifetimes, and when they do, they become times to recognize and celebrate. In the face of increasingly divisive rhetoric, we should be able to take comfort in the fact that on the evening of December 24th, members of two Abrahamic religions will gather in their homes, with their family, and stand at their windows watching the snow fall, or, in our case, the sun set over the beach. There will be warmth in all of our houses: the warmth of family and friends, and the warmth of our ovens cooking big meals with ceremonial and traditional foods. The smells of oil and potato latkes will emanate from Jewish stoves, while the scent of ham and roast turkey will fill Christian homes. And from each of our windows, lights will shine: ours from our Channukiot, our Hanukkah menorahs, and theirs from beautifully decorated Christmas trees. We both will join together with our children or parents, engaging in acts of generosity, providing gifts to one another in what we call the “spirit of the season.”
And what is the “spirit of the season”? Well, it certainly encompasses the many items listed above. And while we can debate and argue about the origins of our holidays, or even discuss the challenges of interfaith gatherings, there is something deeper that we should identify this winter: the fact that humanity wishes to be together. Most of us, no matter our religion, know that it is not a coincidence that Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, the beginning of the Winter Solstice, the day in which winter was declared over, and spring was coming. It is also no coincidence that Jesus, according to Christian timelines, was born on the Winter Equinox, and was resurrected on the Vernal Equinox. These dates were chosen purposefully. But lesser known is that December 25th was also historically the festival day of Pagan religions called Saturnalia, wherein the sun gods were celebrated. In essence, the founders of Christianity, and those who implemented the holiday into the Solar calendar, brought together all kinds of people who would then celebrate their holidays on the same day, in the same season. From the beginning, humanity began to come together and celebrate together.
While Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday commemorating the rebellion against Hellenistic forces in the 2nd century BCE, was for a long time a rather unimportant holiday, something changed when it interacted with American and European winter and Christmas culture. As Jewish families saw the over-the-top celebration of Christmas and winter, with songs on the radio filling our ears, and lighted displays and imagery filling our eyes, it was only natural for us as humans wishing to be together to elevate the holiday of Hanukkah next to Christmas so that we, too, could all celebrate our holidays together. Hanukkah then became a rather popular holiday, even a commercialized one, which led to Jews and Christians shopping together, and Christmas sales becoming “holiday sales” with blue and white “holiday lights,” Menorahs, and dreidels selling adjacent to the red and green Christmas sections. Likewise, interfaith families came closer together, merging these winter holidays, following in the footsteps of the Pagans and Christians merging together.
Of course, the commercialization of Hanukkah isn’t without criticism, with many arguing that Hanukkah isn’t “Jewish Christmas” and that commercialization moves Jews away from the spirit of Hanukkah, or, conversely, that there is now a “war on Christmas.” In engaging in these debates, however, we forget that the true result of this winter merge is a positive one. It is human nature to wish to be together, to celebrate together. When Hanukkah begins to rise in importance alongside Christmas, we have an opportunity–Jews and Christians–to learn about one another, to celebrate our differences and our similarities, to decorate our houses, to cook our foods, to give each other gifts, to send Hanukkah or Christmas or Holiday cards, and to enjoy time with our families, showing love and affection for those we care about in our own ways. That, above all, should be what we can all call the “spirit of the season.” Should we teach our children the history of the Macabees and the joy of overcoming oppressive forces? Of course. Should Christian families go to Church and celebrate the birth of their Messiah? Oh yes. But our holidays are indeed “holy days” not because of the origins, not because of the historical figures involved, not even because it makes us distinguished from others; no, our holidays are holy because they bring us together. They allow humans to connect on positive levels, smiling at one another because it’s such a great time!
This December 24th, 2016, the 25th of Kislev, let us all come together, letting go of our differences, dismissing the talks of this is right or wrong, or my holiday or yours. Let us remove the worry about whether the Mensch on the Bench is really necessary next to the Elf on the Shelf, and let’s just enjoy that for a brief time, in the spirit of the season, we can celebrate a period when individuals truly wish to be closer to one another.