Did Jesus Celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah?
Many people see Hanukkah and Christmas as two opposing holidays. Centuries of antisemitism in the church have created massive rifts between Jewish and Christian communities. The prominence of Christmas in American culture especially has caused some Jewish people to see celebrating Christmas as a threat to Jewish identity. Santa, reindeer, and decorated evergreens obscure the fact that Christmas is about the birth of the Jewish Messiah.
Therefore, it is easy to suppose that Jesus has nothing to do with Hanukkah and that there is nothing Jewish about Christmas. This common understanding, however, does not reflect the history of either holiday. What did Jesus Himself celebrate?
Jesus Celebrated Hanukkah
Christmas as a holiday did not exist until centuries after Jesus was born. Moreover, people did not celebrate birthdays in the first century, so Jesus certainly did not celebrate Christmas. The New Testament, however, does describe Him participating in one winter holiday.
In the Gospel of John, Yeshua visited the Temple during “the Feast of Dedication” (Jn 10:22), which is another term for Hanukkah. While Hanukkah practices have changed significantly since the time of Yeshua, His celebrating this holiday highlights His connection to Jewish traditions. Yeshua lived a Jewish life, which naturally included observing the holidays. Moreover, it is during this festival that Yeshua identifies Himself as the Messiah and as God (John 10:25, 30).
Craig Keener, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, says this about Jesus celebrating Hanukkah:
Jesus offers a bridge between what has historically evolved into two separate faiths, and an opportunity for deeper reconciliation and mutual appreciation. The Gospels offer countless examples affirming Jesus’ Jewish identity. The tradition about Jesus observing Hanukkah is merely one of these, but it is one that invites our attention at this season.
Hanukkah is a powerful story of God intervening on His people’s behalf and showing His faithful lovingkindness. Antiochus Epiphanes, known in Jewish history as “Antiochus the Madman,” ruled the land of Israel when it was under Hellenistic Persian control in the second century BC. When he demanded that the Jewish people worship the Greek gods and give up their Jewish identity, they revolted. This rebellion, led by the Maccabees, proved successful.
When the Jewish fighters returned to Jerusalem, they discovered that the Persians had sacrificed a pig (an un-kosher animal) on the altar, thus desecrating the Temple. According to Jewish tradition, when they were rededicating the Temple, they only had enough oil to light the menorah for one day. The light, however, lasted for eight days.
Jesus is Jewish
It is important to acknowledge Jesus’ connection with the Jewish people. Novelist Howard Jacobson writes, “Jesus was a Jew. Everyone knows that, don’t they?” The answer, as Jacobson points out, is not a simple yes or no. Jesus’ parents were certainly Jewish as they “had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord” (Luke 2:39). His extended family was also observant (Luke 1:6).
However, there are many—both Christians and Jews—who actively or passively reject Jesus’ Jewishness. Many, perhaps without knowing what they are doing, use “Christ” as if it were Jesus’ last name instead of a title meaning “Jesus the Messiah.”
During the winter holiday season, many Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of a Jewish Messiah who is also the Savior of the world. They celebrate the birth of a man whose earthly ministry overwhelmingly encompassed Jews. His disciples were all Jewish. He observed Jewish Law and the feasts (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:2, 10; 10:22; Luke 22:14–15), and His last words were from the Hebrew Scriptures (Matthew 27:46, cf. Psalm 22:1).
The Hanukkah-Christmas Connection
Jewish followers of Jesus see Hanukkah as a time to celebrate another gift of God to our people (and the whole world!)—Jesus the Jewish Messiah. During Hanukkah, we celebrate how God provided light in the Temple for eight nights. How appropriate it is to also remember the Light of the World, through whom we have the Light of Life (John. 8:12).
Without Hanukkah, there would be no Christmas. If God had not intervened during the historical events of that first Hanukkah by helping His people overcome the powerful Persians, the Jewish people and Judaism would not have survived to set the context for Jesus’ birth. A Jewish virgin would not have given birth to a child who would be raised as Jewish. The Messiah would not have died and rose again to atone for our sins.
Hanukkah is a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people. Just as He was faithful to bring them through Persian persecution, He was faithful to send them the Messiah Yeshua.
 Howard Jacobson, “Behold! The Jewish Jesus,” The Guardian, January 8, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jan/09/christianity-judaism, (accessed November 2, 2021).
 Craig Keener, “Jesus and Hanukkah: John 10:22-23,” Huffpost, December 6, 2012, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jesus-and-hanukkah-john-10-22-23_b_2233251, (accessed November 5, 2021).
Learn more when you read The Gospel According to Hanukkah—get your copy here!