As Adam Sandler so eloquently taught us:
Channukah is a festival of lights.
Instead of one day of presents, we get eight. Pretty nice!
As wonderful as the song is (all three versions), it doesn’t teach much about Channukah other than that you don’t pronounce the “ch” like in “cha-cha-cha” (the “ch” represents a harder “h” sound that sounds a bit like you’re getting ready to spit something). So here’s a little bit about what Channukah is about and why it’s important to all Christians and, arguably, everyone else in Western Tradition.
Now, I don’t know that everybody reading this is a goy, but I’m quite certain that anybody who doesn’t know that they are is. “Goy” is a Hebrew word that denotatively means “nation” or “people” and is applied to people who aren’t Jewish. It’s darn near impossible to be a Jew without knowing it, so, if you don’t know you’re not a goy, you are one. Embrace it. And Hebrew makes plurals by adding “im” to the end, rather than “s” like English does, so more than one cherub are cherubim, and more than one goy are goyim.
Channukah very strictly is a celebration of the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by Antiochus IV, and the lights of Channukah are a reference to the ability to keep the lamps in the temple burning for the eight days of the purification ceremony, even though there was only enough oil on hand to keep it burning for one day. That was a great miracle, which proved that G-d accepted this effort.
But what was the effort? How was it possible to purify the temple after its desecration? And who was Antiochus IV and why did he desecrate the temple in the first place? And why should you care? That’s the fun part.
It all starts with Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who conquered the Persian Empire and most of the world that the Greeks have heard of. After his death, his generals squabbled among themselves to take control of his empire. The most stable of which was the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt, which ended when Cleopatra and Marc Antony lost the Battle of Actium to Octavian (Augustus) Caesar, but the next most stable was the Seleucid Empire across what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The Ptolemies tended to stick with the name Ptolemy for all of their male leaders, who tended to marry their sisters, who tended to be named Cleopatra, so the Cleopatra I just referred to is referred to as Cleopatra VII Philopator, and her husbands were her brothers were Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. The Seleucids were named for Seleucis I, Alexander’s general, and his son Antiochus I who succeeded him. Seleucis II was the son of Antiochus I, and Antiochus II was the son of Seleucis II, and the pattern continued down the line to our wacky friend Antiochus IV. These numberings are a modern invention — in the day, they were given surnames. Ptolemy II, son of Alexander’s general, was surnamed Philadelphos, which literally means “brother lover,” because he was the first to marry his sister. Antiochus IV was surnamed Epiphanes, (or Theoy Epiphanoy in the Greek) which means “Manifest God.” Yep, the boy had a big of an ego. Some of his contemporaries called him Epimanes, which means “The Crazy One.”
Now, the Seleucids and the Ptolemies shared a border between Egypt and Palestine that they loved to fight over, and Jerusalem and the Jewish lands were right in the middle of that fight, exchanging hands several times over the years. In the 2nd Century BCE, Antiochus IV faced some resistance and rebellion among the Jews (who, unlike their pagan neighbors, wouldn’t adopt the new gods of their conquerors and worship them, starting a trend of pissing people off that has been characteristic of Jews for millenia), and decided that it was time to stomp out all of this silly Jewishness and turn them into Hellenized subjects that would be better subjects. He outlawed all Jewish religious practice, converted the Temple in Jerusalem to a temple to Zeus and had pigs sacrificed on the altar, among many other violations of the rules of multiculturalism and respect for diversity.
Now, not all Jews minded this Hellenization. Many Jews in Alexandria had taken on aspects of this Hellenized lifestyle, and were known for being quite liberal as Jews went, and some Jews in Jerusalem were ready to go along as well. But, among the more conservative and reactionary Jews was the Maccabee family, particularly Judas “the Hammer” Maccabeus, a Kohen. He and his brothers led a revolt against Antiochus IV, a guerilla action of raids and continued Jewish practice that was able to drive Seleucid forces out of Jerusalem such that the temple was purified in December 164 BCE, and resumed operation according to traditional practice. Ultimately, the Maccabean Revolt resulted in Jewish independence in Judea that lasted until Roman dominance shortly before the birth of Yeshua ben Yuseph, also known as Jesus Christ.
The importance of the Maccabean Revolt for Christians is quite simple to explain — without it, there wouldn’t have been any Jewish religious practice for Jesus to be raised in and to build upon. As someone once put it, without Channukah, there would never have been a Christmas. Beyond that, this was the first time in Western Culture that the concept of religious freedom prevailed. It didn’t produce a Jewish nation with deep respect for the beliefs of goyim, but it did produce a space and time where a subjugated people were able to continue worshipping according to their own tradition, rather than having it stamped out by their conquerors.
So, consider lighting a menorah. Look into what a dreidel is and whether it’s okay to admit playing with one (most Jewish children have). Consider giving Channukah presents (eight days — pretty nice). And consider “Happy Channukah” as a reasonable response to “Merry Christmas,” and accept it as one as well. Channukah — it’s not just for Jews anymore.