Last year my wife, my sons, and I began celebrating Hanukkah. On Sunday, we will once again begin eight days of observing this Jewish holiday, starting at sundown, with the lighting on the menorah, the eating of oily kosher foods, and the reading of the traditional blessing, in both English, and my best attempt at Hebrew. We will play competitive games of dreidel, and give traditional gifts (small chocolate coins) to the kids. We will talk about the victory of the Maccabees, the miraculous way that one day of oil lasted for eight days, and God’s provision for his people. If I sound old-hat at this, remember, we just started celebrating this holiday last year.
Here’s why we did:
Embracing Our Spiritual Heritage
We wanted to embrace the past and pay honor to our spiritual forefathers. As Christians, many of us feel a strong connection to Judaism. A large portion of our scripture is also the Jewish Torah. Our spiritual history includes Jewish history, Jewish law, and Jewish tradition. If we read the Bible, we can not deny our Jewish foundation. And generally, we embrace it. This has not always been the case. Throughout much of Christian history, we have shamefully persecuted Jews (and Muslims) in the name of Christ.
Today, as we rocket toward the future, it can be difficult to connect with the past. For my family, the reading of the Hanukkah blessings in Hebrew is a special and specific way that we slow down and feel a deep sense of kinship with our spiritual predecessors.
Embracing Our Family Heritage
A few years ago, my sister and I were researching the genealogy of our family and discovered that our great-great-great-great-great-grandfather came from Germany in the early 1800’s. Our ancestors, with names like Benjamin, Eli, Jacob, Samuel, and Ebenezer, gave us some clues as to their culture, and we were able to trace the family line directly to a Jewish village in northern Germany. Interestingly, when visiting the National Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, I was able to see the actual Synagog door from the village of my family.
So, while we are not Jewish, my family is of Jewish ancestry, and we want to celebrate that. We are undeniably American and Christian, but there is something to be said for focusing on something beyond ourselves and our own lives. We chose, if only for eight days out of the year, to focus on our heritage.
Embracing a Less Commercial Holiday
First, let me make it clear that my family LOVES (and certainly celebrates) Christmas. We love the spiritual aspects of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus, the spirit of giving, and spending time with family. But we also like looking at Christmas lights, giving and receiving gifts, watching Christmas movies, decorating the tree, and eating a lot. Despite our best efforts to focus on the non-commercial, Christmas is both a religious and secular holiday. In popular culture, it’s almost entirely secular. For my family, there is nothing commercial about Hanukkah.
I understand that for Jewish families that don’t celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah is becoming much more commercial. But for us, Hanukkah is still purely about celebrating God, his provision for his people, and our spiritual history. There is no expectation of gifts, no focus on decorations, no hustle-and-bustle.
So will we stop celebrating Christmas in favor of Hanukkah? No. But in celebrating Hanukkah, I hope that my sons learn something about the joy of celebrating a holiday that embraces the spiritual, the past, and family, without the trappings of our culture that is all-too-willing to commercialize it. Perhaps celebrating Hanukkah will change the way we celebrate Christmas, giving us a better understanding of how we can interact with a holiday that celebrates the divine, when that divine meaning is often lost in the shuffle.