Most Christians have heard of Hanukkah, as it often overlaps our own Christmas season. We recognize the menorahs and we know Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration. But do we know what this holiday is about?
And can Christians celebrate Hanukkah, too? Or would doing so conflict with our own Christmas celebration?
Christians may celebrate Hanukkah. As with any celebration, Christians are encouraged to understand Hanukkah before celebrating so they may honor God by their observance.
Old Testament Celebrations
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.Leviticus 23:1-2
When God established his covenant with Israel through Moses, He appointed seven annual festivals (over and above the weekly Sabbath observance). Most Christians have heard of many of them. Some, such as Passover and Pentecost, correspond to significant events in the life of Jesus and the church.
Each of the appointed feasts commemorates an important event in Israel’s history (Passover, Feast of Tabernacles) or serves a particular religious function (The Day of Atonement). If you read the instructions for each feast in Leviticus 23, you find that Hanukkah is not mentioned. Why is that?
Two More Feasts
Between the completion of the Old Testament and the events of the New Testament, about 400 years had passed. During that time, the Jewish people added two more feasts to their annual calendar: Purim and Hanukkah.
Purim commemorates the preservation of the Jewish people during their time in exile, with the celebration of the actions of Esther and Mordechai (recorded in the book of Esther).
Hanukkah commemorates the purification of the Temple after the Jews defeated the Greeks and reclaimed the Temple in 165 BC. Prior to this, the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes had profaned the altar by sacrificing a pig (an unclean animal under Levitical Law) and sprinkling its blood on the scripture scrolls.
After securing possession of the Temple, the Jews purified and restored the Temple. Hanukkah, known also as the Feast of Dedication, celebrates this victory.
Why Is Hanukkah so Well Known Today?
In the Old Testament, the three pilgrimage feasts were Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. During these festivals, Jews living within traveling distance of the Temple were required to come to Jerusalem to celebrate in person. Though people often came to Jerusalem to observe other feasts, this was not as common, as doing so was simply not required.
Yet today, Hanukkah seems to be the most recognized Jewish holiday in the Western world. Why?
Most likely, this is a result of Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas. Similarly, Christians recognize Passover because of its relationship to Easter, and Pentecost because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.
Hanukkah enjoys the similar fortune of taking place at a prominent time on the Christian liturgical calendar. In reciprocity, the gift-giving tradition associated with modern Hanukkah celebrations likely was appropriated from the Christmas tradition of gift-giving.
What Does the Menorah Symbolize?
The menorah represents a particular miraculous intervention from God during the rededication of the Temple. After purifying the Temple, the priests relit the eternal flame (a symbol of God’s presence) but only had enough oil to burn for a single day.
The process of purifying oil for Temple worship required eight days, so there was not enough oil to keep the flame burning until the oil supply could be replenished.
God miraculously kept the flame lit for the full eight days needed. So the menorah is fashioned to symbolize both the eternal flame (the central wick) and the eight days of God’s provision (the eight peripheral wicks).
Is Hanukkah in the Bible?
As mentioned above, the Feast of Dedication was established (along with Purim) after the Old Testament was completed. But unlike Purim, Hanukkah commemorates events that are not recorded in the Bible.
The Apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees record the events commemorated by Hanukkah, along with other events in the life of Judas Maccabeus and his leadership of the Jewish people in the 2nd century BC.
Most evangelical and protestant traditions do not recognize the Apocrypha (the books written between the Old and New Testaments) as inspired scripture. Though some branches of Christianity (including Catholics and Lutherans) do include these books in their Bibles or lectionaries.
Even though evangelicals do not hold the Apocryphal books to be equal to scripture, we still recognize them as reliable historical writings that record actual people and events from the intertestamental period.
So we accept the facts and events contained in the Apocrypha (including the events commemorated by Hanukkah), even though we don’t rely on these writings for doctrine.
Hanukkah in the New Testament
Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.John 10:22-23
Hanukkah was an established feast by the time Jesus was born. John places Jesus in Jerusalem and in the Temple at least once during the Feast of Dedication. Though the gospel does not record Jesus taking part in any specific ceremonial aspect of the feast, we infer from John’s reference that Jesus willingly observed the festival.
What about Christians Today?
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.Romans 14:5-6
As Christians, we are called to refrain from celebrating pagan holidays, but we have freedom of conscience to honor God through appointed feasts that He once established, but no longer requires of us.
Does celebrating Hanukkah help us to establish better relationships with our Jewish neighbors? In some places, that may be possible.
But the key question that Paul‘s letter to the Romans asks us to consider is whether or not observing Hanukkah helps us to honor God and serve Him better.
If you didn’t know the history and story of Hanukkah before, perhaps knowing it now might prompt you to consider celebrating this year as you reflect on the miracles that God has performed in your life.
If it helps your faith journey, feel free to celebrate. If not, it is okay to sit the holiday out.
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.Colossians 2:16