This year, more people will celebrate the holiday of another religion with friends and family than ever before, largely due to intermarriage and our increasingly multicultural society. When helping others to celebrate their traditions, it may be fun and useful to know a little about how the two main December holidays are similar, and how they differ. The below tidbits may add to the appreciation of the other’s holiday, or enable you to better explain your own traditions—or simply provide a good ice-breaker over eggnog or latkes.
Did you know the holidays are similar in that…
1. Both Hanukkah and Christmas have roots in the Winter Solstice. The shortening of the days was the basis for many holidays that pre-date Hanukkah and Christmas. In ancient Rome, December 25th was considered the birthday of the sun, and many cultures who celebrate the Winter Solstice do so by lighting large bonfires both in public and near their homes. Others see it as a purifying holiday and incorporate ritual cleansings into their celebrations.
2. The story of Hanukkah and the story of Christmas both have a connection to the Roman Empire. The Maccabees, heroes of the Hanukkah story, drew the Romans into the region as allies during their 2nd Century BCE revolt against the Greek-Seleucid Empire in Syria. By the time of Jesus’ birth two centuries later, Rome controlled the land and Romans would play a central role in the story of his life.
3. While Christmas’ central icon is the Christmas tree, and Hanukkah’s central icon is the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), both are filled with light—the Christmas tree through lighted decorations and the menorah through the glow of the candles.
4. Both Christmas and Hanukkah commemorate miracles—Christmas with the Virgin Birth, and Hanukkah with the miracle of the Jerusalem Temple oil lasting eight days.
5. Both holidays’ stories are centered around a pivotal family. Hanukkah features the story of the brothers Maccabee, and Christmas is centered around Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Did you know the holidays differ in that…
1. While both Christmas and Hanukkah have special traditions in the home that are well-known—Christmas is marked with a Christmas tree and decorations, Hanukkah by the lighting of the menorah and playing dreidel—both also have special worship services. However, the midnight mass of Christmas is far more well known (and well-attended) than the extra Torah reading and other additional liturgies read in the synagogue services for Hanukkah.
2. The story of the baby Jesus is written in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are part of the Christian Bible and serve as primary source text for the religion. The Hanukkah story, however, is written in the First and Second Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, which is in addition to but not part of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh.
3. Christmas is a major holiday and also a national holiday. Hanukkah, on the other hand, is technically a “minor holiday” on the Jewish calendar, as it has limited Jewish legal prohibitions about what can and can’t be done compared to a holiday like Yom Kippur (work is allowed during Hanukkah, for example). Hanukkah has, however, become the national Jewish holiday in the United States, and most Jews here would say it is very important to them.
4. Christmas has one of the most identifiable figures the world-over: Santa Claus, who takes different forms in different countries (St. Nikolas, Father Christmas, etc.), but generally looks similar and plays the same role of distributing gifts to children. Hanukkah, however, does not have a persona like Santa Claus, and is instead represented by the symbols of menorah and dreidel, with gifts distributed directly by parents and grandparents—usually spread over the course of eight evening rather than on one exciting morning.
5. Christmas symbolizes the beginning of the Christian religion with the birth of the baby Jesus, and therefore Christianity couldn’t exist without Christmas. Judaism existed long before the story of Hanukkah, and therefore Judaism could still exist without Hanukkah. However, had the Maccabees not won freedom for Israel, it’s quite possible the Jews wouldn’t have survived, and therefore neither Hanukkah nor Christmas would be with us today.
BONUS FACT: Another holiday celebrated this time of year, Kwanzaa, also has a lot in common with Hanukkah. For example, those who celebrate Kwanzaa light the seven-candle kinara and exchange gifts. But that is for another list!