Oy to the world, or How The Maccabee’s Saved Christmas

Every year between the end of November and the end of December, Jewish people around the world celebrate the holiday of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, but the starting date on the western calendar varies from year to year. This year it begins at sunset on December 12. The holiday celebrates the events which took place over 2,300 years ago in the land of Judea, which is now Israel.

The heroes of the Chanukah story are known as the Hasmoneans or, more commonly, as the Maccabees. They were a rebel army led by Judas Maccabee. Back then people did not have last names, but were often given descriptive titles. The word “Maccabee” is a variation of the Hebrew word for “hammer.” Judas Maccabee was Judas the Hammer.

The story of Chanukah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Israel, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of the Hellenistic (Greek) culture of their conquerors, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks. These were the Hellinistic Jews. Think of them as the “liberal” Jews. The “conservative” Jews were the Hasmoneans, who wanted to preserve the Jewish religion and culture against assimilation.

More than a century after Alexander the Great conquered the area, the Greek King Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to severely oppress the Jews. In 167 BCE Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. He banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple to defile it. He prohibited the practice of the Jewish religion. Judah Maccabee led an army of revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by King Antiochus IV. Although greatly outnumbered, the revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

The eternal light in the Temple was relighted, but there was only enough olive oil for one day, and it took eight days to prepare more oil. By a miracle, the oil burned for eight days. That is why Chanukah is called the Miracle of Lights. The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication.” Chanukah is a celebration of the re-dedication of the Temple after the victory over Antiochus IV. It is a minor holiday for the Jews. It had a much greater meaning for early Christians. In fact, the reason why we know so much of this history is from the Book of the Maccabees. Although originally written in Hebrew, none have survived. However, early translations of these books in Greek did survive. They were preserved by the early Christian Church, not the Jews.

Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates a victory for religious liberty and freedom. Had the Maccabees lost the battle against Antiochus, there would be no Judaism today. There would also be no prophecy of a Messiah from the House of David, no Christ child born to the young Jewess Mary 160 years later, and no Christianity. Until the 5th Century there was a day in the Church calendar commemorating the Maccabees. Early Christians were more familiar with the story of the Maccabees than Jews were. The Book of the Maccabees was included in the Christian Bible, not the Jewish one.

And that is how the Maccabee’s saved Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to all.