Every year I am challenged as a mother by the proximity of Chanukah to Christmas, especially in a year like this where the two actually coincide. How can our candles possible compete with their stunning display of colorful lights, gift-filled shopping malls, their decorated houses and trees? What do I say when the kids ask me if Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
What you and many like you are facing is truly a challenge. We and our children are surrounded by the culture of the country in which we live, and if we try to "outdo" those around us we are doomed to failure. We must instead, while acknowledging the compelling nature of the local culture, focus on the beauty of what we have as Jews.
I have always been struck by what I consider one of the greatest ironies of Jewish history: Scholars have shown that many of the customs and celebrations of Christmas are actually based upon our celebration of Chanukah, which predated Christianity by hundreds of years. In their desire to attract Jews to Christianity, its founders established this holiday at the same time as Chanukah, with many similarities but better, hoping it would break down the barriers for Jews to enter their fold. Hence their lights, which are an embellishment of our lights. The gifts, which started later, a takeoff of our Chanukah "gelt." The original 12 days of Christmas are a replica of the Torah reading of Chanukah, which outlines the gift of the 12 heads of the tribes during the consecration (Chanukah) of the original tabernacle, over 12 days.
Studies show that more Jews observe Chanukah than any other Jewish holiday. Some sociologists explain this phenomenon as, like you mentioned, many Jews consider Chanukah their "Jewish Christmas." How ironic is it that the very holiday which is a replica of Chanukah should be reversed and serve as the source of Jews observing Chanukah!
The irony continues to grow: Many, if not most, of the familiar Christmas carols which define the contemporary holiday were actually composed by Jews – including "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Clause is Coming to Town," "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Let it Snow, Let it Snow," "Silver Bells."
To make it even more ironic, the very essence of Chanukah was enacted as a celebration of the Jews to withstand the attempts to assimilate the Jews into Greek culture and society. The miracle of the menorah was performed upon a flask of olive oil. One of the symbolisms of oil is that even when mixed well with water, eventually the oil will not remain in suspension but will separate and rise to the top. So too the Jews did not become assimilated; they eventually separated and rose back to the top, to their connection to God and to each other. The last thing we would expect is for Chanukah to be a way to identify with the culture around us, the antithesis of its message own essential message!
I recommend visiting some of the many wonderful Jewish websites which offer a wealth of material you can utilize to explain the beauty of Chanukah to your children and will enrich your own appreciation of this special time. Aish.com provides articles, videos, coloring pages and many multi-media opportunities to bring Chanukah alive to your family and friends.
On Chanukah we begin with one light and ascend to more and more lights, day by day. May Chanukah be a time that all Jews will ascend and grow in their pride of being Jewish!