“Twas the night before Chanukah, Boichecks and Maidels,
Not a sound could be heard, not even the Draidels.
The Menorah was set by the chimney alight,
In the kitchen, the Bubbie was choppin’ a bite.
Salami, pastrami, a glassele tay, and zoyerey pickles with bagels, oy-vay!
Gesundt and geshmack the kinderlach felt, while dreaming of taglach and Chanukah Gelt..”
This is a portion of “The Night before Chanukah,” running off the pattern of “The Night before Christmas.” If the words seem different to you, it is because it is written in Yiddish. Yiddish, which is still in existence today, was the language of pre-Holocaust Jewish people of Eastern Europe. This cute introduction gives one a taste of Chanukah, and also makes you think of Christmas time. Chanukah and Christmas do have some major similarities that need to be examined.
A brief look at the similarities
The similarities between the background and celebration of Chanukah and Christmas are very impressive. Both had their beginning in the Land of Israel and by the Jewish people. The Holy Temple was rededicated on the 25th of Kislev. The Jewish month of Kislev corresponds to the month of December. The dates for celebrating Chanukah and Christmas often come very close and even overlap. The name Chanukah in Hebrew means “dedication”. The holiday is mentioned in the book of John, chapter 10, verse 22. Lights and gifts play a very important part in both observances. Music is featured in both holidays. Chanukah would not be complete without “Rock of Ages,” and Christians joyfully sing Christmas carols. Chanukah remembers the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem; Jesus was the Temple of God. The shamas, or “servant” candle on the Chanukah menorah is very important. Without the Messiah, the Suffering Servant of The Almighty, there would be no Christmas. Christmas is all about the birth of Messiah Jesus, the Savior of the World. One final similarity is, today, both holidays are highly commercialized.
I would like to expand upon five of the above topics: Lights, the Servant of God, the Living Temple, Rock of Ages, and Gifts. Through these you will see the relation that Chanukah has to Christmas.
Years ago before going into the ministry, I worked for General Electric. The plant where I worked produced the glass shells for G.E. incandescent light bulbs. When the fall season began, the plant would begin manufacturing glass bulbs for Christmas lights seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The demand was very high. The finished product would be displayed in homes and businesses everywhere during the Christmas season.
Chanukah is also known for its light. Jewish homes and businesses light the nine candled Menorah or Chanukiah. The Chanukah menorahs’ light can be generated from candles, electricity, or oil. The Ultra-Orthodox group, Chabad, will place electric powered Chanukiah on the roofs of their cars. It is a real eye catcher when you see a van going down the street with a lit menorah on the roof. Chabad will also place very large menorahs in public places so the world will be aware of Chanukah. There are times when one will spot a lit Christmas tree and a large Menorah standing side by side. Thus, the light displays totally radiate the month of December.
The Hebrew Scriptures speak of light pointing to a Greater Light. The prophet Isaiah emphasized light. His words are striking. “Arise, shine; for, thy light is come and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the LORD shall arise upon thee and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isaiah 60:1-3). This is a passage that is read in Chanukah liturgy.
As we turn to the New Testament, we read the words of Simeon in the Temple when he held the baby Jesus: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy Salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
The Messiah himself proclaimed: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall be the light of life” (John 8:12).
The Servant of God
The Chanukiah has very special instructions for how it is lit. The lamp stand itself has eight candles, with one extra candle set apart or placed higher than the other candles. This special candle is the shamos, or servant candle. All the main candles on the menorah receive their light from the shamos. In the same manner, we receive our light from the Messiah, the Suffering Servant of The Almighty of whom it was written: “That was the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9).
When Messiah Jesus was on the earth, He described His life and ministry in this way: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “He shall see the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied; by His knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
Some churches have a Christmas Eve custom, when the hymn “Silent Night” is sung, one candle is lit in the church sanctuary. The one holding the first lit candle lights the candle of the next person till everyone’s candle in the sanctuary is lit. With all the candles a blaze, the beautiful hymn “Silent Night” is sung in all its glory. Jesus is truly the Servant of God who brings Heavenly Spiritual Light to a world lost in sinful darkness.
The Living Temple
Just as Passover remembers the freedom from the bondage of the Egyptians and the holiday of Purim celebrates the victory over wicked Haman, Chanukah celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem from the wicked Antiochus Epiphanes. The focus of the holiday celebration centers on the miracle of the little cruse of oil which lasted for eight days when the Eternal Light in the Temple was relit.
This joyous celebration also commemorates the rededication of the Temple. When the brutal dictator Antiochus, the Greek-Syrian, occupied Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, he performed many abominable acts in the Temple. He sacrificed a pig on the Holy Altar, placed a statue of the Greek God Zeus in the Holy Place, and poured pig broth on the Torah scrolls. The whole Temple Mount was desecrated and, thus, had to be cleansed. God raised up the Maccabee family to bring down the wicked ruler. Victory came at last, and the cleansing of the Temple began. The polluted altar was demolished, and a new altar consecrated. Ecstasy filled the hearts of the Jewish people in the Land.
The Temple has always been the center of Judaism, just as a beating heart is for a human being. Jewish people all over the world pray facing Jerusalem. For the believer, the heart is Christ’s home and should be clean and pure, as the Temple was meant to be. Jesus proclaimed in the book of John: “…Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days? But He spoke of the temple of His body” (John 2:19-21). Messiah Jesus fulfilled every function of the Temple and its worship. He became the embodiment of the living Shechinah Glory that once dwelt in the Holy Place.
Rock of Ages
The most popular Chanukah song that is sung is “Ma’oz Tzur,” or “Rock of Ages.” There are a lot of joyous Chanukah songs that are sung during this festive eight day holiday. The song “Rock of Ages” reminds us of the rejected corner stone of the Temple. The Prophet Isaiah states: “Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste” or will not be ashamed (Isaiah 28:16). The prophet is using the imagery of this precious foundation stone to point people to the Messiah.
The Apostle Peter expands upon Isaiah’s imagery: “Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on Him shall not be confounded” (I Peter 2:6). Psalm 118 is also read at Chanukah. Let us zero in on verse 22 & 23:”The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The Messiah Jesus is the corner stone and the foundation. He is the embodiment of the Temple. Isaiah reinforces his warning of rejecting this precious stone: “Sanctify the LORD of Hosts himself; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. And He shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin (a trap) and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 8:13, 14). The Messiah who came at Christmas is truly “The Rock of Ages.” He is “precious” to those who believe.
God’s Unspeakable Gift
Everyone loves to receive gifts at this time of the year. Everyday I am thankful for another day of life and most of all, eternal life. Eternal life is the most precious gift anyone can receive. The apostle Paul proclaims: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). He sums it up this way: “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift” (II Corinthians 9:15).
Quoting the beautiful alliteration of A. Paul Tidball, a great lover of Israel, “Chanukah commemorates triumph over tyranny; victory over vice, joy over sorrow and dedication over defilement.” These are the themes that are also summed up in the hope of Christmas. Lights, Servant of God, The Living Temple, Rock of Ages, and Gifts, all point to the Messiah who came to earth to die for our sins, rise from the dead, and who will come again to reign in righteousness and peace. Won’t you embrace Him today?