One source says that this is the first time in over fifty years that the first day of Hanukkah and Christmas coincide. The Jews are excited. Maybe even more excited than when Hanukkah and Thanksgiving came together in 2013. That’s when two women from the Boston area coined the phrase “Thanksgivikah.” Of course “Chrismukkah” is even older than that. It comes from the once popular TV show “OC” when Seth Cohen coined the phrase to reflect his interfaith upbringing. In 2004, the phrase “Chrismukkah” was one of Time Magazine’s words of the year! That same year the New York Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis issued a joint statement condemning the union of both holidays.
So is this good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? Of course, you probably already know the answer. It depends on where you are coming from on the spectrum of particularism vs. universalism or where you find your comfort level when it comes to symbols and rituals that morph over time and sometimes actually reverse the course of their original meaning. This much is clear to me: Unless you live in a walled city with no Internet or TV access this syncretism is inevitable. What we can do is try to keep faith with the essence of our message and make it as relevant as possible.
We are not the first to struggle and question this holiday that begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The codifiers of the Talmud record a fascinating rabbinic discussion that begins with the words: “What is Hanukkah?” As if they didn’t know; as if they weren’t already teaching about how you light the lights associated with the holiday; as if they hadn’t read the Book of Maccabees. The discussion takes place somewhere in the second century. Roman rule is repressive; military options against the oppressors have been exhausted; the Temple is in ruins; two revolts have been quelled. Enter the miracle of oil. Enter a new narrative for the military victory. Enter the words from Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” Enter a redefinition of Hanukkah.
Personally, I am not a fan of miracles. So the oil doesn’t do it for me. I like the light. I love adding a new light every evening. I love seeing the candles increase in power. I feel their warmth building night after night till they fill up all the holes in the Menorah and it is complete or so we think and so we say. But it is never complete. There is always a darkness out there that needs our light. I believe the miracle of Hanukkah is that we are the ones who fill the void, chase away the shadows, shower stars on the year’s longest nights.
This is where Hanukkah and Christmas find common ground for me. The baby born on the 25th brings hope. The lights that celebrate his birth remind me of the dedication of the Maccabees that the tomorrow we hope and pray for will not happen by itself. It takes grit and striking a match to kindle candles of caring. All these presents we wrap in red and green or blue and white are beautiful extensions of our reaching out to each other.
Jimmy Kimmel said the difference between Hanukkah and Christmas is that Christmas kids get all their presents on one glorious morning. Hanukkah kids get them spread out over eight nights. I’m not entering the debate as to which is better. This is what I know. The best gift we can give each other is the present of knowing it is up to us to make the world brighter. It is up to us to elevate holiness and joy. It is up to us to care, give, love. And faith? I have faith that someday we will get it: We are in it together – that’s the miracle.