The days are growing shorter, the nights are long and dark. As we near winter solstice and Christmas, we will begin putting up lights and lighting candles and singing songs.
Because Hanukkah falls in the same season, it has come to my attention that some Christians are now attempting to observe Hanukkah, claiming that because Jesus celebrated it, so can we. There’s even a book out there promoting this idea.[i]
No. Just, no.
Yes, Jesus was Jewish. So were the disciples. So were the early converts that made up the first churches. All the Jewish observances named in the Christian scriptures (New Testament) were observed by Jews, not by Gentiles. They all observed Jewish festivals because they were Jewish.[ii]
But when Christianity moved from being a small Jewish group of followers of the rabbi Jesus into a separate movement of mostly Gentile believers, we gave up any claim on those traditions. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christianity developed its own practices, separate from those associated with Judaism. As Robert Frost once quipped, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence, two roads diverged in a wood …”[iii] Indeed, Christianity and Judaism have been two different roads for almost two thousand years now.
So, back to Hanukkah. I get it. It’s dark (in the northern hemisphere, mind you, lest we forget our southern hemisphere family), and for whatever reason Christmas lights are just not doing it for you.
But remember! We have our own tradition of lighting candles in darkness! It’s called Advent!
Advent is the season that begins four Sundays before Christmas (older traditions have it starting seven Sundays before). Originally, it was a season of fasting and prayer, mirroring Lent. In later years, Advent turned into a more cozy preparation time. It’s a time to ready your home for an anticipated guest. It even has its own carols, separate from Christmas[iv], and newer Advent carols have been written in recent years.
This is also the time of year to BAKE! While Advent began as a time of fasting, in the year 1490, Pope Innocent VIII granted the residents of Dresden, Germany the right to use butter during Advent.[v] I first learned this fact not in seminary but from the Great British Baking Show. This is why we have such rich traditions of breads and cookies and all sorts of yummy treats. If we want to share traditions, offer to trade with Jewish friends, who have their own rich tradition of fried foods during their holiday of Hanukkah!
Other ways of observing Advent include Advent calendars. However, the point isn’t to hurry through Advent to get to Christmas. It’s the exact opposite: Advent is the time to get cozy in your waiting and let the world slow down around you.
So back to Hanukkah, and back to candles! Each night of Hanukkah is special, with a prayer specific to the observance, each candle representing a night of survival and hope for the Jewish people. It is specifically about their own faith and beliefs.
Christians have our own traditions. Each Sunday we light a candle in an Advent wreath. Purple is the liturgical color of this season (not red and green!). There are three purple candles and one pink candle in the wreath. The pink candle is for the third Sunday, called Gaudete Sunday, which means “rejoice” in Latin. It was a way of breaking up the fasting in Advent—on Gaudete Sunday, you could have your butter and sugar and all your yummies. It also reminded us that Christmas was drawing near.
Some wreaths also have a fifth, white candle, which is the Christ candle, lit on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is the end of Advent, and has always been my favorite day. Before the explosion of presents. Before all the decadence. It is a holy, special night, when all the candles are lit, when everything is ready.
Because that’s what Advent is about theologically—it is the season of preparation, waiting for Christ to enter our world and our lives in a new way. While we re-enact the Nativity story at Christmas every year, Advent reminds us that the world is still changing, that God is still doing something new in us and around us—and we are to be ready.
And practically, Advent practices developed and took hold in northern Europe, because it’s really cold and dark this time of year. Pagan traditions were also incorporated, such as holly boughs and evergreen trees for decorations, warm drinks and good food.
Isn’t that amazing, and enough?
So why do some Christians want Hanukkah, too?
Hanukkah is its own special, amazing festival of lights. It’s not about gift-giving. It’s about remembering a time when an empire, at its very worst, appropriated, took over, and desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. When the lamp of God was relit, there was only enough oil for one night, but miraculously, it lasted the eight nights needed for more to arrive. It is about surviving genocide (as, many of my Jewish friends joke, are most Jewish holidays—“they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat”—or in this case, light candles).
So with that knowledge, DO YOU UNDERSTAND how AWFUL it is when Christians try to appropriate Hanukkah? It’s the very thing this holiday is against!
However, there is another way to co-celebrate.
This year, November 28th, is the first Sunday of Advent. It also happens to be the first night of Hanukkah. That means on December 5th, when we light our second candle, our Jewish neighbors will light their last candle. The entire first week of Advent, we are sharing light as neighbors with roots. We are lighting candles in the darkest time of the year. I know many of my Jewish friends have a practice of using no technology while the candles are lit, and some of my Christian friends have taken on a similar practice when lighting the Advent candles, to enjoy the beauty of the light itself.
We all enjoy sharing food with each other. My Jewish friends love to have people over (when it’s non-Covid times, of course) to celebrate as they light the candles. There are public menorah lightings by synagogues and those are wonderful ways to celebrate with your Jewish neighbors. You can invite your non-Christian friends over when you light your Advent candle (and while we light them on Sunday in our worship services, you can continue to light your own Advent candles at home during the week). Those are some of the ways that we can share in these seasons together. Sharing our traditions together is wonderful. Co-opting another’s tradition Is not. Our Jewish neighbors love to share just as much as we do.
Appreciate, don’t appropriate, and may you find meaning and joy in your season.
Many thanks to Laura Anne Gilman for her clarifications on Hanukkah. Any errors are my own.
[i] Purposefully not linking the book.
[ii] From Time, Calendar, and Festivals by Sacha Stern, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Second Edition, edited by Amy-Jill Levine. Oxford University Press, 2017 (New York) pg. 671
[iii] Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” 1916.
[iv] Alas, a warning: some of the old favorite Advent carols are very supersessionist—supporting the idea that Jesus completes or replaces the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Think of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Yikes. It’s a beautiful tune, but you can’t sing that first verse (not to mention the chorus) without understanding how harmful it can be.
[v] https://whatscookingamerica.net/history/cakes/stollen.htm Note that there are other sites stating this happened in 1650 under Pope Urban VIII, but Pope Urban died in 1644 and Germany was Protestant by then.