by Sophia Toprac
Two of America’s biggest holidays happen this month: Hanukkah and Christmas. While I’ve been celebrating, and watching people celebrate, these holidays for all my life, it came to my attention recently that I have no idea where these traditions came from. So I did a little bit of digging, watched a whole lot of the History Channel, and here’s what I found.
Let’s start with Hanukkah, which is a celebration of an event that took place around 200 BCE. Around this time, Jews living in Judea (AKA the Land of Israel) were suffering under a shift in power in the Greek-Syrian government, which had put a tyrant named Antiochus Epiphanes in charge.
Antiochus outlawed the Jewish religion and demanded that all Jews worship the Greek gods. He enforced a series of increasingly oppressive laws, which peaked when Antiochus had a statue of Zeus put up in Jerusalem’s holy Second Temple, and ordered that Jews be forced to sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods inside the temple. A Jewish priest named Mattathias stepped forward, but instead of sacrificing a pig, he whipped around and attacked the Greek soldiers.
The ensuing fight rapidly escalated into a full-scale rebellion, led by Mattathias and his five sons, particularly Judas Maccabee. Within two years, the Jewish forces had successfully used guerilla tactics to drive the Syrians out of Judea, despite the fact that the Jewish forces never included more than 12,000 men and the Greek army had about 50,000.
Afterwards, Judas and his followers immediately set to work cleansing the temple, rebuilding the altar, and lighting the menorah. By Torah law, only specially prepared pure olive oil could be used on the menorah there, and they only had enough of it for one day. But as Judas and his followers watched in amazement, the menorah and its meager amounts of oil miraculously stayed lit for a full eight nights, giving them just enough time to prepare more olive oil. Astounded, they declared those eight nights an annual holiday.
While the rebellion in Judea provides context for the holiday, it is really the miracle of the menorah that is being celebrated. The battle-weary Jewish forces then saw it as a parallel to their situation—the little light shed a huge light just as the minority had defeated the majority—as well as a confirmation of everything they’d fought for. This is why Hanukkah means “dedication”.
In contrast with Hanukkah’s celebration of a specific event, Christmas is a huge mix of independently-created traditions from all over Europe. Mostly, it is the result of Jesus’ birthday on December 25th being swirled together with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia.
Saturnalia was a month-long holiday in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture, in which Roman neighborhoods erupted into enormous festivities. They named one beggar in each neighborhood the lord of that neighborhood and gave him all the best food and drink, and basically just partied hard for the next month. They also celebrated Juvenalia around this time, which honored the children of Rome.
Jesus’ birthday, as created in the 4th century, absorbed Saturnalia, but kept around the traditions of giving to the poor and honoring children. Christmas spread to England by the 7th century, and to Scandinavia by the 9th. When it showed up in America mid-1800s was when it was converted to a peaceful family-oriented holiday—1800s America was riddled with class warfare and gang violence, so people were already feeling hot-blooded enough without a hedonistic drinking holiday on their hands. Also parenting styles were becoming less strict, and parents were becoming more willing to lavish gifts on their children. Thus Christmas became a loving, gift-giving holiday.
Books are a great gift to get your children for Hanukkah or Christmas. This holiday season, you might consider a ReBook Party to help out children who don’t have books at home. Even if your child is too young to read, giving them books to play with and chew on will help them develop positive associations with reading and will boost their early brain development.
While BookSpring avoids holiday-themed books through our regular program distributions out of respect for the diverse religions that families teach and practice at home, there are many great children’s books at places like BookPeople and Half-Priced Books, both of whom support BookSpring year round. In any case, pick up a present for your child to read during the winter holidays! It’s a gift that will keep on giving.