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Monday, December 17, 2012

Yes, I'm a Christian who celebrates Hanukkah.

We celebrated the last night of Hanukkah last night with some friends and family.  It was lots of fun filled with food (best latkes yet!), lighting the menorah, stories, playing with friends, and playing dreidel. It's a tradition my brother, Travis, and I have been doing since we got home from Jerusalem in 2007.  This year there was a lot of interest in questions as to why we, as Christians, celebrate Hanukkah.  This seemed like a good place to explain.

First, let's talk about what Hanukkah is.  This is going to be a very brief summary (even shorter than the children's book we have about it!) for brevity's sake.  We all know I'm too long-winded as is.

In the 2nd century BC, the Greeks conquered Jerusalem.  They tried to Hellenize (make Greek) all of the Jews.  (Just like they did to every land they conquered.)  A handful of Jews revolted, refusing to worship idols, and fled Jerusalem.  Through guerrilla warfare, the small number of Jews fought against the Greeks and eventually conquered.  The Greeks withdrew, leaving a broken and desecrated Jerusalem behind them.  The Jews cleaned and fixed the temple, but when they went to rededicated it, they found they only had enough oil for the menorah to last one night.  It takes 8 days to make new oil worthy of the temple.  They felt like they couldn't wait another 8 days to dedicate and truly cleanse the temple, so they used the little oil they had and prayed for a miracle.  And a miracle they got.  The oil burned for 8 nights, until new oil was made to replace it.  It truly was a miracle.

The Jews celebrate Hanukkah by burning candles in a type of menorah with room for 9 candles.  Each night another candle is added (plus one in the middle, called a sammash, that is used to light the rest) until all 8 candles (plus the sammash) are lit, to celebrate the 8 nights that the oil burned.  This celebration is also called the Feast of Lights or the Feast of Dedication.

Christ celebrated the Feast of Dedication.  We read about it in John 10:22: "And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter."  Christ was Jewish.  He celebrated Jewish holidays.

And guess what?  Our religious ancestry is Jewish, too!  We believe our religious fathers were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  We believe the Old Testament.  We believe our history follows the Jews right until Christ, who fulfilled the Law of Moses and established his church upon the earth.  But does that mean he stopped being Jewish?  How about the 12 apostles?  No!  They still practiced many Jewish traditions.  They let go of the Law of Moses and moved onto a higher law, but traditions are not law.  Although they still followed Jewish traditions and customs (kosher eating, circumcision, and probably many holidays), they allowed Gentile converts to Christianity to have different customs.  They were not required to be Christian and Jewish.  And that's where we get the split.  The new branch of the church, the gentiles, didn't follow Jewish traditions.  And guess who kept the church alive through all the Christian persecutions?  Jews?  Gentiles?  It was the Gentiles.  It was due to the mother of a Roman emperor converting to Christianity.  And because its was the Gentiles allowing Christianity to flourish, it was the Gentiles who determined the customs and festivities*.  Thus Christians stopped celebrating Jewish holidays.

So… back to us.  Today.  Do I feel obligated to celebrate Jewish holidays?  No.  In fact, I don't celebrate most.  I've never eaten a Passover dinner (although I would love to).  I do not celebrate the Day of Atonement.  I've celebrated Purim twice, and I want to again.  And I do not fully celebrate Hanukkah.  We do not give out presents every night.  Heck, this year we only lit the menorah for half of the nights and it was our best year yet.  Usually we only remember once or twice.  We don't recite the blessings associated with lighting the candles.

So, then, why do we celebrate at all?  For a handful of reasons.
  1. Because it is part of our history.
  2. Because we like excuses to have parties.
  3. Because we like themed parties (We also have done Spain, Chinese, and Harry Potter parties.  We're hoping to have a Star Wars party in March.)
  4. Because I have a menorah.  Why not use it?
  5. Because it's a great way to teach my kids about another religion and culture.  Not to mention teaching friends and family about the same.
  6. Because it's  great way to teach my kids about miracles.  I love to relate stories to myself and my life.  BJ and I were discussing last night and I think in future we will focus on that more. Perhaps every night when we light the menorah we will tell a story about miracles we've seen in our lives, or in the world, or in church history (both LDS church history and in Christian history.  And in Jewish history!)  Or, perhaps, if we are in need of a miracle ourselves, or know someone who is, we could use the celebration as a means to focus our prayers and discussions and faith on the needed miracle.
  7. The story of Hanukkah is found in the Apocrypha.  Modern-day revelation tells us that, "There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly." Although we do not believe the Apocrypha to be canon, it is still worthwhile to read it, with the Spirit.  I believe the story to be true.  I love the story.  I believe it is worthwhile to teach my children.  Just as I believe it is worthwhile to teach them Old Testament stories.  I will definitely place more emphasis on Old Testament stories, but I think the story of Hanukkah has its time and place, too.
  8. I majored in Ancient Near Eastern Studies.  I basically spent years immersed in Jewish and Old Testament culture.  I love it.  I lived in Jerusalem one summer.  All things Jewish have a special place in my heart.  I want them to have a special place in my children's hearts, too.
So there you are.  My long-winded explanation of why we, as Christians, celebrate Hanukkah.  At least in part.  :)  We're going to have another Hanukkah party next year!  I hope you all can come!

*Did you know that most of our holidays were actually a result of the Church trying to eliminate pagan holidays?  They would take a pagan holiday and celebrate a Christian holy day on it.  Then the people still got to celebrate on their holidays.  They just changed why they were celebrating.  So yes, friends, Christmas was actually founded on a pagan holiday.  Which is why we celebrate the birth of Christ in December when he was actually born in the spring.