Hanukkah has often mistakenly been called the “Jewish Christmas” but the actual holiday is far from it! Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival that recounts the story of a small group of devoted Jews who revolted against an oppressive Greek empire in the 2nd century BCE. The Greeks were occupying Israel, the Jewish Holy Land. They insisted the Jews give up their covenant relationship with God, abandon his ways, and embrace idol worship. To accomplish this, they desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, the center point of God’s presence among his people. Though many Jews compromised, a small number fought against the spiritual and religious tyranny. They won battles against great odds, and rededicated their Temple in Jerusalem.
From these events, Hanukkah became known as the “Feast of Dedication” (they rededicated the Temple to God). Based on the events of Hanukkah, the holiday is celebrated by lighting a Hanukkiah or menorah (a candelabra that holds eight candles). Often people eat fried food and recite special nightly readings referred to as liturgy.
Hanukkah holds religious significance to the Jewish people. But it also holds spiritual, historic, and religious significance for the followers of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus.
WHAT IS THE HANUKKAH STORY?
Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights or Feast of Dedication, was a defining moment in the life and history of the Jewish people. It did not originate with Moses in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and it’s not mandated in the Bible. It’s found in First and Second Maccabees in the Apocrypha, the books written in the years between the writing of the Old and New Testaments.
Hanukkah was prophesied in the book of Daniel centuries before it took place. The prophet Daniel records Alexander the Great’s rise to power and the destruction of his kingdom into four sections (Daniel 11:3-4). One of these four regions was ruled by a terrible king, who would set his heart against God’s covenant and people (Daniel 11:21-28). Further, it was recorded he would sack Jerusalem, defile Solomon’s Temple, and attempt to lure God’s people into idolatry (Daniel 11:31).
This ruler was Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who reigned from 175-164 BCE, and took over Jerusalem. He wanted the nations over which he ruled united under Greek Hellenism. He even named himself Epiphanes, which was his way of declaring he was the visible god (Daniel 11:36). Antiochus wasn’t tolerant of the Jews’ devotion to the Living God. Like many rulers in history, he tried to eradicate the Jews of their devotion to God and draw them into false religion. Through trickery and deceit, and social and political pressure, many Jews compromised. Many Jews bowed to his statues (Daniel 11:32). But some didn’t. Those who stood against Antiochus’ tyranny understood that assimilation would destroy Judaism. Antiochus’ heavily armed soldiers were sent to force Jews to worship the king and participate in idolatry. The penalty for resistance was death. Many Jews resisted, so Antiochus started killing the Jewish people.
In 167 BCE, soldiers came to Modin, a small town outside Jerusalem, to force Greek worship on an influential Jewish family. Mattathias and his five sons would not forsake his faith. He tore down the Greek altar and drove off the soldiers with the battle cry “Whoever is for the Lord, follow me!” This was the beginning of the Jewish rebellion. During the following years of war, Mattathias’ oldest son was nicknamed Judah Maccabee, meaning The Hammer. The battle against the well-equipped Syrian soldiers was difficult for untrained farmers. Yet, in the power of God’s presence, they carried out great exploits against all possible odds.
On the 25th of the Hebrew month Kislev, the Maccabees won back Jerusalem and the Temple that had been desecrated by Antiochus. They purified the Temple and lit the Temple’s menorah, an ancient symbol of God’s illumination (Leviticus 24:1-5). Though they only had enough specially prepared oil for one day, the oil burned for eight days, until more oil could be prepared.
HANUKKAH IN JESUS’ DAY
By Jesus’ day, Hanukkah was an established celebration in Israel and Jesus observed it (John 10:22-23). In fact, the events of John 10 are told with the understanding that it was during Hanukkah, where Jesus proclaims he’s the light of the world.
Even more, there appears to be a future-forward aspect to Hanukkah described in II Thessalonians 2:3-8 where Paul writes about Jesus’ second coming. While this passage doesn’t refer to the historic events of Hanukkah, it carries the same themes of compromise, deliverance, and dedication.
WHAT ARE THE THEMES OF HANUKKAH?
From the historic events, the themes of miracles, deliverance, dedication, sacrifice, light, and resistance against assimilation emerge. Celebrating Hanukkah today calls us to encounter these gospel ideals.
THE THEME OF MIRACLES
In Hanukkah, we see two miracles. First, a few untrained soldiers triumphed over a multitude of powerful enemies, aided by God’s presence and power (Zechariah 4:6). God stood in the midst of Israel and made them victorious over their enemy. God still works miracles today. We are called to believe he will exalt his name over our enemies and do miracles on our behalf (Psalm 13).
Second, lighting eight candles for eight days comes from another Hanukkah miracle. When the victorious Maccabees cleansed and rededicated the Temple, they found only one small jar of specially prepared oil that could be used in the Temple’s Menorah. While they waited for more oil to be prepared (which took eight days), in faith they decided to use what they had. As tradition says, it burned for eight days. This, again, reminds us of God’s miraculous provision. He gives provision in answer to the faith and obedience of His people. Today, as Christians we remember God is a God of miracles and deliverance, our ever-present deliverer (Psalm 27:1).
THE THEME OF DEDICATION
In Jesus’ day, Hanukkah was known for themes of deliverance and rededication (John 10:22). The Jews remembered that God delivered them and they remember the rededication of the Temple. Celebrating Hanukkah helped them rededicate their lives to His ways no matter the cost. This was a spiritual response to the physical events of Hanukkah. The lives of Mattathias and Judah Maccabees are testimonies of men who knew obeying God was more important than obeying men and beings (Acts 4:19,20).
When Jesus came, he said he was the light of the world (John 8:12). Because he’s the light of the world, we dedicate our entire lives to his ways no matter what the cost might be. Hanukkah reminds us to dedicate our lives to God’s ways, regardless of the sacrifice. Our culture pressures us to give up God’s ways. However, God gives us supernatural power as we dedicate ourselves to him.
THE THEME OF LIGHT
Hanukkah calls us to be renewed in the Messiah’s light. The miracle of lights in Hanukkah calls us to remember that Jesus is the light of the world and it’s a miracle he was sent by the Father. At Hanukkah, we are to rejoice and celebrate the light and life we receive in Jesus.
THE THEME OF ASSIMILATION AND PURITY
Hanukkah calls us to stand against cultural assimilation with anything ungodly, false, impure, or defiled. There is an assault on God’s people in every generation. Sometimes, the assault is direct, like it was during the events of Hanukkah. Or it could be Christian persecution throughout the ages. Sometimes, the assault is indirect like it is in Western cultures. Such as money, power, materialism, immorality, and many other evils that call us to compromise. God calls us to stand, to rid our lives of defiling ways, and know that His light is the life of men (John 1:4).
HOW IS HANUKKAH OBSERVED TODAY?
Today, Hanukkah is celebrated starting on the evening of the Jewish month Kislev 25. This usually lands in the month of November or December.
In remembrance of the miracle of the oil in the temple, a menorah or hanukkiah is lit each evening with family and friends gathering together to celebrate. The hanukkiah has nine candles, one of which is the shamash or “servant” candle. This candle is used to light the other candles. Only one candle is lit on the first night, and each night another candle is lit, until all eight lights are lit by the final night. Liturgy is read with each candle lighting, and often hanukkiahs are kept in windows or in public places.
Because of the oil used in the temple, most people commemorate Hanukkah by eating food fried in oil. Typical food includes latkes (fried potato pancakes) with sour cream or sufganiyah (jelly-filled donuts). Other favorites include french fries and gelt (chocolate coins).
In addition, people often play dreidel, a lighthearted gambling game with a spinning top. The four Hebrew letters on the four sides of the top, nun, gimmel, hey and shin indicate the words “a great miracle happened there”. The traditional Hanukkah song Dreidel commemorates the game which is played with gelt or other candies.
HOW CAN YOU CELEBRATE HANUKKAH?
Our participation in the Hanukkah celebration brings special meaning to the Christian walk as we remember that Jesus came to fulfill his purpose in us. He has given us a reminder to be just as convicted about our faith as the Maccabees were, whether we are Jewish or not.
Preparing for Hanukkah is a great joy because there is so much anticipation! Here are some practical ways you can prepare yourself and your family to celebrate the Festival of Lights:
WAYS TO CELEBRATE:
- Buy or prepare your menorah and purchase a set of candles you can burn for the eight days. Need to find a menorah? Check out these beautiful menorahs at Judaica.com.
- Outline the spiritual focus of each night, using scriptures and stories or our Hanukkah Booklet to help you and your family to understand the meaning and significance of the celebration. A great book to read is The Family Guide to the Biblical Holidays.
- Set aside time each evening to share the story of Hanukkah and discuss its themes. A Hanukkah family liturgy guide is available here.
- Outline your menu and celebration plans, such as lighting the menorah, family prayers, games, food, etc.
- Find a good way to tell the story, or watch a movie about it. One tradition we love is to set aside an evening and watch the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof. Kids can watch a movie like Animated Hero Classics.
- Find some good Hanukkah recipes, like these latkes, or these recipes from Delish.com.
- Participate in a church celebrating Hanukkah if you can. Decide whether or not your family will throw a Hanukkah party. Invite those who need to hear about Jesus.
- Decorate your home the night before Hanukkah begins, making it festive and joyful. Play dreidel, try a fun Hanukkah music playlist, and check our our Hanukkah Pinterest board for ideas.
- Decide whether or not your family will give gifts. If you choose to give gifts (there is no historic tradition of giving gifts for Hanukkah, but hey …), decide if you will give one each night or one for the entire celebration. Looking for Hanukkah gifts? You will find great gifts here. and Hanukkah books for kids like these make great gifts.
- Celebrate with focus and dedication. Arrange your schedule to eliminate busyness and activities that can hinder the spirit of joy and celebration.
More resources can be found on our Twenty Six Eight website. Enjoy your holidays and have a Happy Hanukkah!