It’s happening again this year. Hasn’t happened this way since 2005 and before that it had been almost 50 years, back in 1959. That’s right, 2016 is going to give us another chance to celebrate Chrismukkah (or Hanumas, whichever works for you), the rare occasion when the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve fall on the same day.
See, the reason Jewish holidays fall at different points in our secular calendar is because of the discrepancies between the Jewish, lunar based calendar and the Gregorian, solar based calendar. For example, a lunar year is shorter by 11 days so instead of adding a single day every four years to “catch up,” a month is added several times over a nineteen-year period. Which is why we are continually asking: “Are the holidays early or late this year?” For the secular world, Jewish holidays never seem to be “on time”!
While it may give planners of Jewish institutional life some headaches, mostly it’s simply a question of knowing when to do what. The confusion, however, goes much deeper. It goes to the fact that Jews live in two worlds: The “Jewish world” which uses “Jewish time” and secular, every day twenty-four hour life. Sure, for the most part it’s easy to deal with. Major holidays are announced well in advance (when tickets go on sale) and an occasional moment of confusion is easily rectified by a call to the Temple or checking out an online Jewish calendar.
Hanukkah, though, is somewhat different.
As a result of falling on or near Christmas, the two worlds collide in what has been historically uncomfortable ways. Post World War II, Jews managed to deal with the co-incidence of the two holidays by making the observance of Hanukkah into a much bigger deal. Instead of simply giving gelt (chocolate money), presents were introduced to assuage the “guilt” of Jewish parents; concerned their kids would feel left out. Although many families fought hard though to prevent Hanukkah from becoming a “Jewish Christmas,” others fought just as hard to make Hanukkah a bigger holiday that it traditionally had been.
This year though, we have Hanumas (or Chrismukkah, whichever works for you). Hanukkah starts with Christmas and ends with the first day of the secular New Year. Because this is so rare, maybe we should stop for a second and think about how, especially in a year fraught with so much divisiveness, the observance of these two holidays can bring a message of hope to bring us all closer together. Because, really, despite all the noise, which goes along with them, the underlying theme of both Christmas and Hanukkah is that this time of year is full of joy and the embracement of faith. While the rationale of these emotions may differ between the two holidays, the resultant feelings themselves should be celebrated. Both Christians and Jews should feel a sense of joy. We live in a land of great diversity, and we should not take this value for granted. We do more than merely “co-exist,” we share our holidays with our friends. We invite each other over to our homes. We proudly declare who we are, and Jews who sometimes feel the pang of being a minority, also feel the pride of being different and unique as well. Indeed, one of the main mitzvot (commandments) of Hanukkah is “pirsoom mitzvah” – “to publicize the mitzvah.” Jews proudly display their menorahs on their windowsills. They attend large gatherings around publically displayed menorahs. And express their disappointment to stores that don’t cater to their holiday needs. “Please don’t forget us!” they plead. “And don’t put out Passover products at Hanukkah time! Come on, try a bit harder!”
The theme of faith is common to both holidays as well. While the story of the miracle of Hanukkah’s is known, the contemporary communal struggle for religious freedom is not. Since its start, Jews fought with each other against secularism. It wasn’t simply that the Greeks were taking away their way of life; it was that many Jews let it slip away easily. Many felt their fellows had lost their faith and abandoned their Jewish values. So really, at its core, Hanukkah is a holiday that reminds Jews that faith cannot be taken for granted; it must be nurtured and celebrated. It must be allowed to inspire us as a call to action, to insure that our ideals continue for generations yet to come. Likewise, Christianity, in honoring the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrates the importance of faith as well, with a message of recognizing God’s grace and the miracles God has brought.
So this year, let’s understand and celebrate our differences, but also pause to celebrate those values that we, as Christians and Jews – and as Americans – share. We understand that a flame burns brightest in the darkness but also when one candle gives its light to another, it remains undiminished. That’s the miracle we’re all celebrating here. The miracle that we can share with each other and not be diminished ourselves. May this miracle burn bright for all people – as Jews sit down to light their menorahs, and as Christians decorate their trees – and may we all usher in the New Year together. Happy merry! (Or Merry happy, whatever works for you).