Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

Note: the following appeared as op-eds in the Valley City Times-Record on subsequent weekends.

Hanukkah, festival of light and freedom

"For eight days they celebrated the re-dedication of the altar... Then Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the re-dedication should be observed every year for eight days.” First Book of Maccabees 4:56-59

This Sunday at sundown, the 25th day of Kislev, Dec. 21 in the Gregorian calendar, begins the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah.

For eight nights Jewish families all over the world will light a candle each night on the eight-branch candelabrum, called the menorah, until all eight are lit on the final night of Hanukkah.

Some menorah also have a ninth candle, called the shamash, or “guardian.” The Talmud forbids using the Hanukkah lights for any purpose other than meditation on the meaning of Hanukkah, so the shamash is used to light the other candles.

Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar, the dates of Hannukkah vary, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.

The festival celebrates the liberation of the land of Israel from the rule of the Seleucid kingdom of Syria, one of the states founded from the remains of Alexander the Great's short-lived empire.

Under the reign of Antiochus IV, Judaism was outlawed, observing Jews massacred, and the temple of Jerusalem profaned with statues of the Greek gods and sacrifices of pigs.

A village headman Mattathias, and his five sons Jochanan, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a revolt against the Syrian-Greeks. They were called Maccabees, after Judah's nickname, “the hammer.” Judah succeeded his father as leader after he was killed.

When the Maccabbees drove the Seleucids from Jerusalem and re-dedicated the temple, it was found there was only enough lamp oil to light the sacred lamp for one night. The story goes that it miraculously burned for eight nights, hence the eight nights of Hanukkah.

The Maccabbees fought for 25 years, until the last surviving brother Simon, won recognition of the independence of their nation.

He lived long enough to see Rome begin to expand into the region. Eighty years after his death, Rome wiped the nation of Israel off the map for 2,000 years.

So why is this story so meaningful to a goy like me? Though I have Jewish relatives, I am not Jewish myself. Why does the Hanukkah story have the power to move me to tears?

When I was a boy, I saw actor/folksinger Theodore Bikel tell the Hanukkah story on a TV program called, “Songs of Freedom.”

He sang “La Marseillaise”, “Scots Wha Hae”, and “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, as well as traditional Hanukkah songs in Yiddish and Hebrew. He sang of Hanukkah in the longing for freedom of all peoples. He showed that freedom is tragically rare in history, often crushed, yet always rising from the ashes.

He said, “In the lamp of freedom, there is oil enough for only a single night.”

Yet still it burns.

That group of national cultures we call “Western Civilization” has twin roots, in the ancient Greeks and the Hebrews. Whoever we are, wherever we came from, in a very real sense we are all Greek and Hebrew.

Hellas lives on in the tradition of philosophy, skeptical inquiry, and the examined life.

The Hebrew religious tradition was the first to place the Golden Age in the future rather than the distant past, giving us the hope that tomorrow might be better than yesterday.

For though there may only be enough oil in the lamp for a single night, we may hope that the light will burn longer than we have any right to expect.

Christmas, season of paradox and renewal

It's Christmas again – er, one day past, OK– but what a wonderfully appropriate place to celebrate, in the North Dakota winter!

Christmas is at once the most, and the least, Christian holiday. The holiday Christians hold dearest, though its roots are older than Christianity. It is today a center of controversy, though most people are unaware that the controversy is far older than the present church-and-state argument.

Though it is the holiday most associated with Christianity, there is no scriptural warrant for the date of the festival. Nowhere in the New Testament is the date of the nativity mentioned. Some early Christians celebrated on May 20. It wasn't until 354 A.D. at the earliest, that the event was associated with Dec. 25.

Dec. 25 was the date of the winter solstice until a calendar adjustment moved it a few days off. The winter solstice was sacred to any number of solar deities from time immemorial. Early Christian missionaries wisely decided to adapt the festivals of the new religion to the familiar customs of the people they preached to.

From the pre-Christian customs of Europe came the Christmas tree, the Yule log, mistletoe, and the most beloved figure of all, Santa Claus. Our Santa was inspired by the life and works of St. Nicholas of Myra, patron of children, pawnbrokers and sailors, mixed with attributes from traditional characters from European folklore.

At times, religious reformers aware of the pre-Christian roots of many Christmas customs, have attempted to abolish Christmas. Under Oliver Cromwell, celebrating Christmas was banned, causing pro-Christmas riots in England. In Puritan New England you could go to jail for celebrating Christmas.

And today of course, we have our own Christmas grinches who attempt to banish any Christmas symbols from the public sphere.

But the celebration of Christmas resonated with our ancestors too deeply to be taken from them. And I think it was for reasons we can appreciate in North Dakota more than people in more temperate climates might.

The solstice marks the day the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky, and begins to climb higher each day, bringing the promise even in the depths of winter, that warmth and light will return and the earth renewed.

The symbolic correspondence with Christian doctrine of renewal and rebirth was obvious. Christianity taught that no one was too low, but with grace they might re-invent themselves as a new and better kind of person. A person with worth and dignity no king or emperor could take away from them.

In a world where the vast majority of people were abjectly poor, and a significant number of them outright slaves, the message spread like wildfire.

Today in a time of uncertainty, when many are worried about their future, and the future of their children, it is a time for reflection and reassurance.

The winter will yield to spring, the sun will return and the earth will be renewed. Bad times will pass and good times come again.

And in the meantime, we can occupy ourselves with good cheer and fellowship and keep warm near the fire with family and friends.

And Merry Christmas to you all!


  • At 9:30 AM, Blogger Ted said…

    Isn't there supposed to be some link between the Maccabees revolt and Masada?

  • At 4:22 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Not the Maccabean revolt, but the First Jewish-Roman War in 66 AD.

    There is an interesting connection between the Jewish state and Sparta during the rule of Simon Maccabbee though.


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