Jewish and Muslim children, from an early age, became increasingly immersed in the national and religious culture of the Christian world around them. The natural tendency of most children — a desire to “fit in” — leads many Jewish and Muslim children to want to copy non-traditional ways in general, and popular Christmas party practices in particular.
Each year, December becomes the month when many non-Christian children feel left out if they do not participate in Christmas school celebrations; or they have mixed conflicting emotions if they do participate.
Over the last three or four generations, Hanukah has increasingly become an important holiday for Jewish families during the heavily commercialized Christmas selling season; because there is lots of pressure from well meaning Christians to get everyone, including Jews and Muslims, to join in all sorts of Christmas cultural and religious activities.
In previous generations, the ancestors of most these children went to Islamic or Jewish schools, lived in Jewish or Muslim neighborhoods, and had very little contact with Christian children. This all changed in the 20th century, especially after WW2, when the commercialization of Christmas, and the Christmas selling season, became universal and ubiquitous.
Fortunately, the post Biblical previously minor eight day Jewish Holiday of Hanukah occurs during December. Hanukah, with its celebration of the value of standing up and fighting (jihad) for your right to be a non-conformist who is different from the majority, and your freedom to celebrate your own religious laws and traditions, became an important event in the education of Jewish children to be proud of their own religious heritage. It can serve others as well.
When Jews kindle the Hanukah candles (this year from Saturday evening December 24 to Sunday January 1) they will be celebrating two kinds of dedication. Hanukah (Hebrew for Dedication) celebrates the joyful rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after it was profaned in 168 BCE by an idol installed in it by the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV (who named himself : ‘Manifest God’).
In addition, recent attempts to outlaw circumcision in California, Germany, Sweden and other places, by people who think it is a barbaric custom, follow the path of the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV, whose decree outlawing circumcision was the final outrage that led to the revolt of the Maccabbees.
All of this can be easily understood by first, second and third generation Muslim families living as a small minority in the West, whose ancestors grew up in Muslim majority countries, and never had children facing these kind of pressures.
In 169 BCE the Greek rulers of the Syrian Empire, decided to prohibit Jews from circumcising their sons, as part of government program to make Jews conform to Greek standards of civilized behavior.
Greek pressure on Jews to ‘fit in’ culturally had some limited success with many wealthy Jews and with some of the upper levels of the government appointed leaders of the priesthood in Jerusalem.
Then the Greek King ordered that a statue of himself be placed in the courtyard of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. That led to a revolt which broke out in 168 BCE in the small village of Modin, led by a man called Judah the Maccabee (hammerer), and his four brothers.
With trust in God, the five Maccabee brothers (four of who were killed in battle over the next two decades) defeated the much larger Syrian Greek armies, recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated (Hanukah) the desecrated Jerusalem Temple in an eight day festival.
Judah Maccabee ordered the Temple to be purified, and a new altar built in place of the one that had been polluted by pig’s blood. According to the Torah (Leviticus 24:2), pure olive oil was needed for the two menorahs in the Temple, which were required to burn day and night throughout the year.
However, there was only enough unpolluted oil found to burn for one day, and it would take a week to prepare a fresh supply of ritually pure oil for the menorah. Some said: Delay the Hanukah of the Temple for a week. Others said: Kindle the Temple Menorah now, and trust that it will last until new pure oil can be made.
The menorah was lit; and it did not go out prior to the arrival of the new oil. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Thus the Hanukah story is about two kinds of battle; the physical struggle against others (political and sometimes military); and the spiritual struggle within ourselves to trust in God, and never yield to despair or abandon hope for the future (kindling the oil).
Hanukah- the Festival of Freedom celebrating the religious duty to say ‘NO’ to the unjust demands of a dictatorial government, is still celebrated to this day in Jewish homes by reciting blessings, lighting candles, singing songs and retelling the ancient story with its modern lessons.
The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs in Makkah.
All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever. And this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lights. Once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; its flames lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.
Indeed, its flames have long outlasted the oppressors themselves.