This year we will be experiencing one of those rare occasions when Hanukkah and Christmas coincide exactly with our first night of Hanukkah also being our Christian neighbors’ Christmas Eve. The last time that happened was in 1978 and the next time will be in 2027. I am sure, to the chagrin of the owners of the Chinese restaurants, this Christmas Eve Jews will not be gathering in their establishments, eating Chinese food, but rather will be at home, lighting menorahs and eating latkes. But have no fear, dear Chinese brethren, we will be back in force next Christmas Eve!
So often, this time of year has been one of great tension for us as Jews and between us and some of our Christian neighbors. We even have a term for it. We call it “The December Dilemma”. While year after year there have been those in the Christian community who have complained bitterly about a “War on Christmas” – indeed, one of President-Elect Trump’s campaign promises was that if he became President, everyone in America would be saying “Merry Christmas” – still many of us Jews, along with many other minority faiths, have not seen it to be so much a “War on Christmas” but more a Christian war on non-Christian faiths. And it has been ugly!
But it just may be that this perfect confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas can offer all of us – Jews, Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith – an opportunity to take a step back from the annual fray in order to reconsider what this season can and should mean, particularly in light of the teachings of our various faiths and specifically in light of the messages of the holidays we are just about to celebrate.
So often in the past, while immersed in the struggles of the December Dilemma, as there were those Christians who were railing against those stores and institutions who, out of a sensitivity to the religious diversity of our society, had chosen to express their good wishes in terms such as “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”, claiming that it was all a plot to destroy Christmas, and as there were those Jews who angrily protested against having public schools require non-Christian students to participate in the singing of sacred songs that proclaim the divinity of Jesus, it was so easy to focus on the differences between the two holidays; differences that make them appear as being diametrically opposed. After all, Christmas is all about celebrating the coming of Jesus who, for Christians, is God made manifest in human form, and Hanukkah is all about celebrating the victory of a band of Jews who were willing to risk their lives in fighting a war to protect their right to observe their own religion freely and without pressure or harassment to do otherwise.
Of course these struggles are still going on, but this year it is a little different. It is a little different because come the evening of December 24th, the Christians and the Jews will go their separate ways, each of them to celebrate the powerful messages of their own holiday rather than to combat the other.
When you think about it, as we Jews gather in our homes, lighting our menorahs, and the Christians gather in their homes, enjoying the beauty of their lighted Christmas trees, the differences tend to fade and the similarities tend to shine through. Indeed, we can begin to see that what are usually presented as differences can begin to appear as two sides of the same coin.
Perhaps there is more about the two holidays which – if approached properly and observed properly – compliment each other rather than contradict each other. After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, who, according to Christianity, is supposed to be the Prince of Peace. How often we hear identified with Christmas the profound wish of “Peace on earth, good will toward men” or to be more contemporary and gender neutral, “goodwill toward all.” On the other hand, Hanukkah is about the importance of freedom of religion. Not just freedom of religion for Jews but freedom of religion for all people. In the end, both are about respecting the dignity and integrity of all people. That’s how peace on earth is achieved. We cannot hope to achieve goodwill toward all unless we come to respect that which makes each of us different and unique as well as that which makes us alike. Of course, that includes the freedom of each of us to observe the religion of our choice.
I recently read an article in the Washington Post which spoke about this confluence of holidays, particularly in terms of their shared symbol of light. For the Christians, their Christmas Tree is lit, they may be burning a Yule Log in their fireplace, and many of their houses are decorated with lights – some to the degree that they can be seen from space. For us Jews, our light – the light of the menorah – may be a bit more modest but still, according to Halachah, when we light it, it is not supposed to be in the midst of our house but rather at the window, shining out into the world at large. Both holidays are calling upon us to become a source of light in a very dark work. For both faiths, it is more than just about lighting candles or light bulbs that shine in the darkness of night. It is about making of ourselves a source of light in a world that is shrouded in the darkness of poverty and suffering, inequity and conflict, disease and starvation. We – Christians and Jews and people of all faiths – need to become the ones who bring light into the darkened lives of so many others, for whom their light has gone out or has never been kindled.
Perhaps this will be the year, when Christians and Jews are celebrating their festivals of light simultaneously, that we come to realize that we are all in this together. Though we approach God in our very different ways, and we are celebrating very different holidays, perhaps we can come to recognize that all those things that differentiate our faiths and observance are meant to be directed inward, not outward; that they are all intended to be personal to us and not expected of others. Yet there is so much that we do share, and that our various faiths demand of us, much of which is communicated to us through the very messages of these holidays. It is in those values and in those tasks that we should be reaching out to each other in a righteous partnership of goodness and blessing. Together, we can bring the light and drive back the darkness, but we have to choose to do so!