By David Jones
Hanukkah is called The Festival of Lights, and has a lot of traditional holiday trappings—the menorah candelabra, the presents, the whole emphasis on light and cultural pride.
But man, it took awhile to get there. The development of Hanukkah is a tale of increments, and it’s also a very culturally traditional thing.
Once upon a time, Hanukkah was all about its origin: the name is derived from a Hebrew root meaning “to dedicate.” And that’s how it all started.
I’m going to skip the Jewish political in-fighting or why the Hasmoneans were called Maccabees, so let’s just summarize. The Jewish people could divide their history into segments based on who was either occupying, enslaving, or oppressing them. Heading into the second century BCE, it was the Greeks (or at least fragments of their empire).
The real problem with Greek rule, maybe more so than the Roman occupation, was the policy of Hellenization. Greekifying everyone was how Greece tried to force occupied lands to be happy; it meant giving up your culture and adopting ours. Greece assimilated other cultures by replacing everything that gave them unique identity and autonomy.
The Jews worshiped their God, but the Greeks insisted that Zeus was the real way to go. Antiochus III couldn’t do anything about it, but his son wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
Antiochus IV invaded, took over, banned every Jewish religious practice, then set up an altar to Zeus in the sacred temple. Pig sacrifices, ceremonially unclean blood everywhere, false god, and worst of all… some of the Jews were okay with that. Mattathias and his sons were not okay though. A guy showed up to make him sacrifice to Zeus, while it was Mattathias’ opinion that the guy should be dead. The Jews complained, Antiochus struck back, and in 167 the Jews said enough was enough.
Years of fighting ensued. In 164 they took back Jerusalem, cleaned things up and re-dedicated the temple. From that point there would be a new holiday of sorts: the Feast of Dedication. Yeah, it was actually a re-dedication, but roll with it. The events were recorded in the book of 1 Maccabees (a book in the Catholic and Orthodox bibles but not in Protestant bibles) somewhere between 134 and 104 BCE.
But what about the lamp oil that burned eight days when there was only enough for one day?
Oh, that wasn’t part of the story. In fact the Miracle of the Oil showed up first in a commentary of the Babylonian Talmud around the year 500 CE. That’s like 664 years after the re-dedication actually happened and 634 years after the event was written down.
But since a prominent Rabbi said it happened, that was enough, because without a supernatural miracle the Festival of Dedication is just a human military victory. Hardly Passover-level importance.
Heck, Hanukkah wasn’t even called the Festival of Lights until the historian Josephus called it that in his book, The Jewish Wars, written around 75 CE, more than a century after 1 Maccabees even mentioned the battle. Even then he wrote that it was about light being restored in Israel, after being in the darkness of a profaned temple and lost faith.
Today’s Hanukkah is an amalgam of things, just like so much of the Judeo-Christian religion. So what is Hanukkah now? A celebration of military victory over foreign oppressors? A declaration of God allowing the lamps to miraculously burn with untainted oil until they could get more? Something else? Many folks have their own interpretation of Hanukkah.
But for me? Hanukkah is a celebration of light in dark times, and a time of restoration and revitalization of what is best and brightest within us all. Faith. Values. Hope. Compassion. Love.
At that point, even atheists and Gentiles can appreciate the value of the celebration. When life and its troubles camp against us, when we feel abandoned, when we feel oppressed or beaten down or unwanted, when we’re surrounded by darkness, we can remember the Hasmonean family who are historically known by the name Maccabee.
These people never forgot who they were, no matter how much they had been marginalized and their identity stripped from them by those who sought to control them.
Did God make one day’s worth of oil last eight days? Does it matter? I guess it does if you want a religious holiday full of Sabbath-like restrictions and rest. I suppose it’s also necessary if you want or need a consistent cultural narrative of being okay/falling from grace/being lost/hitting rock bottom/coming back and triumphing/enjoying decades of prosperity. It’s a recurring motif in Hebrew writings.
But seriously, as Josephus suggested, the value of finding the light and hope amid a hopeless darkness should resonate with everyone.
David Jones has a 30-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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