Hanukkah: The Eight-Day Party in Praise of God
O Hanukkah, O Hanukkah
A festival of joy
A holiday, a jolly day
For every girl and boy
Spin the whirling dreydls
All week long
Eat the sizzling latkes
Sing a happy song
Hanukkah! Even the most sophisticated, secular Jewish person cannot help feeling merry when Hanukkah rolls around. Who wouldn’t? It’s a celebration that combines the unique blend of history and faith that has sustained the Jewish people throughout the centuries. Plus, it’s simply a ripping good story of an underdog standing up to a bully and teaching him a lesson.
Taking a Stand for the Lord
The bully in question was Antiochus IV—a descendent of Seleucus, Alexander the Great’s general, who ruled over the region that included Israel. Antiochus IV was a vicious and brutal despot and forbade the Jewish people from practicing their faith. He also desecrated the Temple by carrying out pagan sacrifices there.
The underdog was, of course, the Jewish people—led by the priestly family of Mattathias. His son, Judah, earned the nickname Maccabee—the Hammer—for he pounded the armies of Antiochus IV until they were soundly beaten. The recapture of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple in 164 BC was the triumphant moment that gave birth to Hanukkah—the Feast of Dedication.
As legend tells us, a single cruse of holy oil burned in the Temple for eight days until more could be procured. On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, a candle is added until all eight candles of the hanukkiah (candleholder), plus the shamash (servant candle), burn brightly in the windows of Jewish homes throughout the world.
Hanukkah is celebrated beginning on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. While Christians traditionally give gifts on Christmas, many Jewish people give gifts on all eight nights of Hanukkah!
Like most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has its own special activities and foods. One of the most popular activities is spinning the dreydl, a tradition that originated in Germany. The dreydl is like a top with four sides. Each side has a Hebrew letter that together form an acronym for the Hanukkah proclamation, “A Great Miracle Happened Here” (or “There,” if you are outside of Israel).
You can spin the top and play for matchsticks—or else gold coins! Well, not really gold, perhaps, but chocolate coins covered in gold foil. You can’t spend them in stores, but they sure taste good! Another tasty Hanukkah treat is latkes—fried potato pancakes. Eat them with applesauce or sour cream. Either way, they’re delicious!
The candles of the menorah remind us that the Eternal Light of God pierces through every darkness. They also point us toward Jesus the Messiah who said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).
If we will accept Him, His light will burn brightly in us, making us beacons of His love, power, and peace in this troubled world.
Hanukkah or Christmas?
Contrary to the sadly misinformed world-at-large, Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” although the Jewish lunar calendar sometimes causes Hanukkah to overlap with Christmas celebrations. There is, however, a beautiful connection between the festivals. For if the Maccabees had lost the battle, the Syrian Greeks would have so completely Hellenized the Jewish people that the Jewish community would have lost its identity and ceased to exist.
However, because of the stubborn refusal of the Maccabees to bow the knee and their subsequent victory over the vastly superior fighting force of Antiochus, the Jewish people survived. What was the result? In less than two hundred years, Yeshua the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. If Antiochus had destroyed the integrity of the Jewish community as he hoped, what would have become of the Jewish family into which the Messiah would be born?
In other words, without Hanukkah, there would be no Christmas—not in the true sense of Messiah’s being born of a Jewish virgin! That is the deep and profound connection between the holidays. This connection speaks of a faithful and all-powerful God who loved us so much that He orchestrated the events of history so that, at the right moment in time, the Redeemer of the world, Yeshua, would be born in a Jewish home in Israel.
And so, with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, we praise the Lord:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David….