When Hanukkah Meets Christmas

One day last week, half way through Hanukkah and at the height of the count-down to Christmas, I joined a Yad Ben Zvi tour in the Old City of Jerusalem to explore the celebration of those two festivals. Although Jewish festivals are fixed according to the lunar calendar, and Christian festivals follow the solar calendar, both holidays fall round about the winter solstice and many scholars claim, not without some justification, that their dates were very likely chosen to conform to a much older tradition, one celebrating the turning of the year, when the shortening days reach their climax on the shortest day of the year, and then start to lengthen, so that it must have seemed to primitive man that the dying sun had been reborn. For example, can it be coincidence alone that both festivals involve the emergence of light from the surrounding darkness (the Hanukkah candles, the candlelit Christmas tree topped by a star, the Yule log), or that both fall on the 25th day of the month (Hanukkah on the 25th of Kislev, Christmas on the 25th of December)?

As far as Hanukkah is concerned, the First Book of the Maccabees (which, in Judaism, is not considered part of the Hebrew Bible), describes how the Seleucid ruler Antiochos IV Epiphanes defiled the holy Temple on the 25th day of Kislev, in the 145th year, by sacrificing to an idol which had been set up on the altar there (I Maccabees 1: 54 – 59). Therefore, when the Maccabee army liberated Jerusalem three years later, they chose the anniversary of the heathen profanation – the 25th day of Kislev – to rededicate the altar (I Maccabees 4: 52 – 59).

As children, we were taught that Hanukkah celebrates the Miracle of the Cruse of Oil. When purifying the Temple prior to its rededication, only one cruse of oil was found which had not been desecrated by the Seleucids and their supporters. This was the olive oil used to light the Temple Menorah, which was supposed to burn continuously. But the amount found was sufficient for one day only. Miraculously, however, it lasted for 8 days, until new oil could be prepared.

However, the Miracle of the Oil is not mentioned in the Book of the Maccabees. In fact, the earliest mention of the Miracle is in the Babylonian Talmud, and dates to the 5th century CE. For comparison, I Maccabees, the earliest of the Books of the Maccabees, was written in Hebrew in the mid 2nd century BCE, but survives only in Greek translation. Since Antiochos IV reigned from 175 BCE to 164 BCE, this means the earliest extant mention of the Miracle of the Cruse of Oil dates to several centuries after the event.

Our guide posited that the sages who composed the Talmud, having witnessed the devastating effects of rebellion against Rome, were anxious not to encourage the kind of military adventurism they saw in the story of the Maccabees, and thus placed the emphasis on the divine miracle of the oil, rather than a military victory wrought by mortal men.

Thus it was until the rise of modern Zionism, which saw every reason to glorify the actions of the patriotic Maccabees and to restore the emphasis on human endeavour.

At all events, these days, both traditions are celebrated. Thus, upon entering the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, we were greeted by security officers/guides dressed as Maccabees, who waved us in the direction of the narrow streets where chanukiot (Hanukkah menorahs with 9 branches, rather than the 7-branched Menorah of the Temple) burned brightly in windows or outside the front doors of the houses.




There were also a lot of cats roaming the narrow streets and alleys.

Emerging from the residential area, we entered the central square of the renovated Jewish Quarter. The rebuilt Hurvah Synagogue rose up before us, blazing with light, and beside it, the replica of the Temple Menorah:

We turned next to the Cardo – the main street of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem, now lined with shops, where glass-topped piers permit one to view the relics of the city’s defensive walls from the First Temple and Hasmonean periods, below the present pavement.

It was time now to visit the Christian Quarter, to taste the sights and sounds of Christmas.
We had already glimpsed our first Christmas tree in the courtyard of Christ Church, hard by the Jaffa Gate, where we entered the Old City. It is a church where I have often appeared with my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir – a fact which I happened to mention to our guide, and was then delighted to hear that he not only knew of our choir, and was well-acquainted with our conductor, but also conducted a choir of his own when not engaged in guiding tours around Jerusalem!

Here it was that our guide explained how the date of Christmas had probably been fixed to coincide with one or more ancient Roman festivals – either the Saturnalia (17 – 23 December), or the Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) festival, which was celebrated on the 25th of December and celebrated the rebirth of the sun after the Winter Solstice. Again, this fits with the idea of having a festival of light in the middle of winter, when it seems as if the sun has been dying with the shortening of the days, only to be reborn when the days start to grow longer again. Interwoven with this belief was the Christian belief that the birth of Jesus signified the coming of light and rebirth in a world made dark by ignorance and sin.

Now we wandered among the streets decorated with coloured lights, the shops selling Christmas paraphernalia, and the very popular Christmas market.

One enterprising resident of the Quarter, having lived for a while in the United States, and missing the manifestations of Christmas prevalent in the West, created his own “Santa’s House”, where people were lined up round the block to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus, or Baba Nuwil (Papa Noel) as he is known in Arabic.

By the way, in case you were wondering how Santa travels in this part of the world, singularly unsuited to reindeer – he rides a camel, of course!

In the middle of all the Christmas symbolism, we found one house which has been bought by a Jewish organisation, Ateret Cohanim, and turned into a yeshiva.

At which point, it seems appropriate to remember that there were times when openly displaying a menorah outside one’s door, or in the window, represented a genuine threat to one’s life and yet Jews were not deterred. Who can forget this image and what it represents?





At last, it was time to return to the Jaffa Gate, where our tour had begun and where it now ended:





I made my way back through the Mamilla shopping mall, where the cafes were full to overflowing and the shops all had chanukiot displayed in their windows. At the far end of the mall, I was just in time to witness the end of a candlelighting ceremony:


From there, I decided to walk down the road to the Jerusalem International YMCA, judging it would be easier to get a taxi from there – and also because they always have beautiful Christmas decorations, not to mention two Christmas trees, one outdoors and one indoors.

And since it has been all too long since I shared any music with my readers, here is a recording of my choir’s 2016 Christmas concert in the beautiful YMCA Auditorium, where we have appeared many times. Enjoy Benedetto Marcello’s (1686 – 1739) setting of the traditional Hanukkah anthem, Maoz Tsur, followed by selections from Handel’s Messiah.


What better way to end this virtual Hanukkah-Christmas tour of ours?



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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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20 Responses to When Hanukkah Meets Christmas

  1. Carole Schulman says:

    Thank you Shimona. XX

  2. Such a beautiful trip and joyous occasion. I celebrate Christmas, but I hope I have learned about Hanukkah tradition long ago. I did enjoy this trip with you and your music. Lynn

  3. It’s changed quite a bit in 30 years and yet in many ways it is still the same. A very enjoyable tour, thank you. ❤️

  4. Thank you for the great walk in old Jerusalem. You woke up my memories walking around those narrows streets. I love that place.

  5. 15andmeowing says:

    My heart breaks for those cats. I wish I could rescue them all. XO

  6. Thanks for that wonderful and educational tour! I really enjoyed your concert as well. Have you ever had the privilege of singing with an orchestra? My mother sang in an oratorio choir, too…way back in the 1960’s…and she once sang Bach’s Mass in b minor, there was a small orchestra, with the organ to back them up. I was 9 or 10, and got to hear the performance. I still remember that. A precious memory now, since our canary (As my dad called her, fondly, is no longer with us…)

    • We have often sung with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and other Israeli orchestras, as well as with European orchestras (mostly German) on our various concert tours. We also sang the Bach B-minor Mass many years ago (I think – though it might have been the Magnificat. My memory plays tricks on me sometimes). I would say the culmination of our orchestral experience was probably Beethoven’s 9th (Choral) symphony, which we have performed on several occasions with the JSO. And last month, of course, there was Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, again with the JSO, which I missed because I was in mourning.

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