Christmas wasn’t always part of the Christian experience. There’s no record that Jesus or his disciples or the early church celebrated Christmas at all. In fact, the first Christmas or Christ Mass wasn’t celebrated until the 4th century. It’s likely Jesus wasn’t even born in the winter. Rather, it’s thought that December 25 was chosen as a day to celebrate his birth because it coincided with a pre-existing pagan festival. That would make it easy for non-Christians to add a new layer of meaning to their old celebrations. That happens in the history of religion.
The interesting thing though is that December 25 wasn’t just the date of a pagan festival. It also coincides, in a way, with a festival that Jesus did actually celebrate.
Like Jews of his time, Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication which occurs on the 25th of Kislev, a month in the Jewish calendar that most closely approximates December. “At that time,” the Gospel according to John relates, “the Feast of Dedication took place in Jerusalem; it was winter. Jesus was walking in the Temple in the portico of Solomon. Tell us,” the Jews said, “if you are the Messiah.” Their comments were fitting, for the Feast of Dedication marked the last time a deliverer had arisen to save them from oppression. It was past time for another; the Roman experience was a cruel one indeed.
The Feast of Dedication commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its utter desecration at the brutal hands of Antiochus Epiphanes about 170 years BC. Today, that feast is known by its Hebrew name, Chanukah. Although Chanukah only gets a line or two in the New Testament, it actually plays a huge role in the birth of Jesus.
To explain, we have to go back in history over three hundred years before the birth of Christ. Alexander the Great ruled the ancient world around the Eastern Mediterranean. After conquering the Persian Empire, Greek culture, or Hellenism, spread like wildfire. The Jews living in Israel quickly found themselves surrounded by it and then almost swallowed up by it. Hellenism was to the ancient world what Western culture is to the modern world. Just as you can find a McDonald’s in just about every corner of the world, not to mention American pop music, blue jeans, TV re-runs, Western style Christianity, and the English language, so in that day, you could find Greek culture, religion, and language permeating every other culture of the world. Needless to say, it wasn’t all good, especially for those in the minority, like the Jews. It put their whole distinctive way of life at risk.
After Alexander died, his empire eventually fell into the hands of one Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Epiphanes means “face of God,” but a more apt description was the moniker the Jews gave him: “Epimanes” or “crazy man.” He was the Hitler of the intertestamental period. Like Hitler, he was obsessed with wiping out the Jewish people. He began with the slaughter of the citizens of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple. Alfred Edersheim explains what happened in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah:
“All sacrifices, the service of the Temple, and the observance of the Sabbath and of feast days were prohibited; the Temple at Jerusalem was dedicated to Jupiter Olympus (a Greek god); the Torah was searched for and destroyed; the Jews forced to take part in heathen rites; in short, every insult was heaped on the religion of the Jews, and its every trace was to be swept away.”
Bottom line: Antiochus was bent on genocide. The final straw was the slaughter of a pig on the sacrificial altar in the Temple. Definitely not kosher. This occurred on the 25th of Kislev, the month that generally corresponds to our December.
A Jewish deliverer rose up whose name was Mattathias. Even though they were outnumbered and overpowered, under his leadership the Jewish people began a campaign of guerilla warfare against Antiochus and his Syrian armies to reclaim the Temple. Mattathias died fighting, but his five sons carried on, including one whose name you might know: Judah Maccabee. He led the fighting till the Temple could be purified and its services restored.
Exactly three years after its desecration, the Temple was rededicated. This also took place on the 25th of Kislev, about 165 years before the nativity of Christ. If Antiochus had carried out his plan, there would have been no Mary, no Joseph, and no Jesus. There would have been no Messiah of Israel, no Savior of the World. Bottom line: without Chanukah, there would be no Christmas. Jesus owed his life to Chanukah. In a sense, we owe our faith to it.
In the midst of this Advent Season, let us remember the minor Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom of religion and which makes possible the major Christian one. Let’s do like Jesus did and re-dedicate ourselves to freedom of religious expression, and to the freedom to dedicate ourselves to God.
Adapted from “Christmas through Jewish Eyes”, by Rebekah Simon-Peter.