by Moshe Gold
Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind (Romans 14:5).
Christmas in Israel is a very diverse event where there is no official day or way to celebrate.
Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, follows the religious cycle of holy days enumerated in Leviticus 23 with minor additions included by rabbinic sanction, among which are Purim and Hanukkah. The calendar of Israel is divided into twelve thirty day months, which do not run concurrent with months on any other calendar and are called by names unknown to most other peoples. December 25th, Christmas on the Gregorian calendar, is just another day in Israel. It may surprise you to learn that the majority of Israelis who celebrate Christmas follow the Eastern Orthodox tradition which uses the Julian calendar; celebrating Christmas on January 7th, which is also a normal day in Israel. Although Christmas, whenever it is celebrated, is not an official holy day, out of respect, many employers allow the day off to those who celebrate.
Israelis who observe Christmas make up about 2% of the population. They number 153,000 and include the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions. There are also Baptist, Pentecostal, and Nazarene churches represented in this number. These folks are for the most part from a non-Jewish background and the vast majority, about 80%, speak Arabic. For them Christmas is celebrated much as it is in many countries. There are Church services, pageants, concerts, traditional Christmas music and parties. Christmas trees, decorations of various kinds, and lots of foil wrapped chocolate Santa figurines are sold in supermarkets, hardware stores, and kiosks. Special foods are prepared according to ethnic and family customs and it is a treat just to catch a whiff of these delights! There are public celebrations and display of manger scenes in communities where local officials approve them as in Nazareth, Shfaram and parts of Haifa, which house major Christian communities.
The smallest group in Israel to celebrate the incarnation of Messiah Jesus is amid the Jewish population. There are perhaps a little over 10,000 Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel. Whereas most Israelis who call themselves Christian follow European traditions in their celebration of the Incarnation, the majority among the Hebrew speakers use Judaic symbols. Most do not identify at all with the European tradition of Christmas so foreign to their culture. Neither do they associate themselves with these traditions by calling themselves Christians, instead using the term messianic (mashiykhiyyim).
There is good reason for this. Among the general Jewish population the word Christian, in addition to meaning a follower of Jesus, implies a non-Jewish status. To identify oneself as Christian (Notzri) infers (as if it were possible) that one is no longer part of the people of Israel and somehow has become Gentile (non-Jewish). Although this is not the actual teaching of the Jewish religion, it has been the popular way to discourage interest in Jesus as Messiah. This has the intended effect of minimizing the testimony of Jewish Believers as good neighbors and good-Jews. It also reinforces the false teaching that the message of the New Testament is not for Jewish people. For those of us who are Jewish and following Jesus, it attempts to rob us of our heritage and strip us of our ethnic identity. For most here in Israel the choice to identify with Judaic symbols is purely a cultural one and should in no way be taken to mean association with any form or practice of the American Messianic Fellowship International or organizations that promote so called messianic synagogues, which are at best a modern packaging for the religious activity of those whom Paul referred to as Judaizers.
The vast majority of the born-again community in Israel is assembled into independent New Testament churches where preference in how to commemorate events in the life and ministry of the Messiah Jesus mostly depends on culture and language. Jewish and non-Jewish worshippers have differing customs and for the most part have respect for one another and enjoy fellowship with each other, but mostly assemble with those of like culture and language.
Among the Hebrew speakers the celebratory cycle follows the Jewish calendar and the celebrations are, for the most part, from the feasts the Lord gave to the people of Israel. While repentance on the Feast of Trumpets and fasting on the Day of Atonement for forgiveness of personal sin is not needed, the festivals tell the story of the hope that lies within us from faith to faith. We use symbols that help celebrate our salvation in the Messiah while demonstrating our standing as part of the general community. By doing so we are better communicating to our children and neighbors that we are walking in the faith of our Fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For example we celebrate Passover to commemorate the coming of the hoped for Messiah, our Passover, who has by the breaking of His body and the pouring out of His blood established the New Covenant. Shavuot (Pentecost/Weeks) foretold the inauguration of the New Covenant, the beginning of the Church. We enjoy sitting in a sukkah (booth) at Tabernacles to remind ourselves of His choosing of us as a people, His faithfulness in preserving us, His saving us, His coming return to fulfill all He has promised through the Prophets and New Testament. When it comes to celebrating the advent of Messiah into the world, many choose to use the celebration of Hanukkah (Feast of the Dedication).
To modern Jewish people Hanukkah is about the legend of a small bottle of oil. In 167 BC the Syrians, who had control of Israel, attempted to force Jewish people into accepting their god. After three years of war the Holy Temple was liberated from the Syrians. It was cleansed and a new Altar of Sacrifice was dedicated on the 25th of Kislev; the same day as the original one was desecrated by the Syrian emperor’s representatives by sacrificing unclean animals on it to their god Zeus. On that day the Great Menorah was to be re-kindled but, as legend records, there was only enough sanctified olive oil to keep the Menorah burning for just one day. The legend goes on to state that this small cruse of oil burned for eight days until more could be pressed. Although there is no proof that this miracle took place and there is absolutely no mention of it until the middle-ages, this has become the emphasis of Hanukkah. The usual celebration includes the use of a nine-branch menorah; one candle for each of the eight days is kindled, using the ninth, which represents the Lord who worked the miracle. Each night a new candle is lit to honor that day so, for example, on the second night two are lit, on the third night three are lit, etc. This is accompanied with blessings of thanksgiving. There are two customary foods prepared during this time. Both are fried in oil to symbolize the legend: filled donuts or fried dough pastries and potato or vegetable pancakes. The 25th of Kislev usually falls close to the 25th of December and over the years Hanukkah has, in some ways, come to be celebrated in a similar way as Christmas. There is singing of traditional songs, family gatherings and even the giving of presents. As many Christian communities the world over decorate with lights outside and inside their homes, the same is done to celebrate Hanukkah in Israel.
For us as Believers in Messiah Jesus, Hanukkah represents the coming of the Light of God and the radiance of His glory, Jesus the Messiah. It is part fulfillment of the promised return of the Dwelling Presence that was longed for by those who fought against the Syrians so long ago, the Maccabees, who instituted Hanukkah. It was their leaders who declared that we as a people should celebrate these eight days with personal devotion and sanctification awaiting the return of the Glory of God to His people. Later, Hanukkah began to be linked to the hoped for Messiah of God who would fully restore the people of Israel to God and bring back the Dwelling Presence to the Temple. This is the background to the question put to Jesus in John 10:24.
Our use of Hanukkah is not due to festive similarities with the celebration of Christmas. It is because it tells the story of the victory of the Jewish people against the enemies of God who forced our ancestors to convert to their false religion or suffer torture and death. It reminds us of a time when the servants of Satan tried to extinguish the light of God in the world, represented by the people of God, the Jewish people. God would not allow it and stirred up those who would rather yield themselves to death on the battle field than turn from the True and Living One.
Those who fought were called Maccabees, which is an acronym for their war cry; “who is like our God among the false gods.” They clung adamantly to the promises of the Prophets that God would never forsake His people Israel. The Lord gave this small volunteer army a victory over one of the most powerful empires of the world at that time. They understood that it was not by human will or force but by His strong arm. They were the faithful remnant used of God at that time to preserve His people even though most had been willing to forsake Him for an easier life. Before the altar was dedicated they issued a decree for the people to rededicate themselves to the Lord and to live as the people of God, waiting faithfully for His return to the Temple. The dedication of the altar and rededication of the Temple was celebrated like Solomon’s dedication of the first Temple. It was celebrated for eight days as Tabernacles in hope that the Dwelling Presence would return to His people. He did not, but they did not give up hope and commanded the nation to sanctify themselves every year at that time in anticipation that one day He would come to His people and dwell among them.
We believe that the Dwelling Presence did return in the person of Jesus and He did provide the way for Jewish people and all people to become righteous. We use Hanukkah to remember the birth of the one in whose image we have been born-again. He has filled us with His light, made us the faithful remnant of our generation and the modern counterpart to the Holy Temple of God. We also use this time, each in our own way, to rededicate ourselves to Him, to anticipate His return and live as a light to our people and to the world and so bring honor to His name.