Shalom dear friend in the Messiah,
‘Tis the Hanukkah–Christmas season! It is a time of good cheer when, generally speaking, Jewish people are celebrating Hanukkah and Christians are celebrating Christmas. Though I must admit, even in New York, there are quite a few “Hanukkah bushes” (a Christmas tree decorated for Hanukkah) displayed in homes throughout the area.
It goes without saying that there are many differences between the holidays, but through the years I have discovered many parallels as well.
One of the most obvious similarities is that both Hanukkah and Christmas are observed the same time of year. The precise date of the Messiah’s birth is a bit controversial in some circles, but what is absolutely clear from the New Testament is that the God of Israel became man, dwelled among us, died for our sins, and was raised to life in fulfillment of the plan of God’s redemption detailed in the Bible.
This year, Hanukkah, which is an eight-day celebration, and Christmas overlap once again. This creates a natural tension between the two festivals, especially in Jewish communities. I grew up believing that one of the ways you could tell a Jew from a Christian was by the holidays he or she celebrated. For that reason, celebrating Hanukkah was viewed as a symbol of loyalty to the Jewish people. My family and other Jewish people who know that I believe in Jesus as my Messiah often ask me which holidays I celebrate. The underlying question being so subtly asked is whether or not I still view myself as Jewish now that I believe in Jesus!
In case you are unfamiliar with Hanukkah, let me give you a brief overview of the celebration. Hanukkah celebrates the great victory of the Maccabees, a family of Levitical priests, over the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian Greek general whom the Jewish people nicknamed “Antiochus the madman”! He tried to destroy the Jewish people by turning them into Greeks, but failed.
Hanukkah is also called the “Festival of Lights.” According to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was recaptured from Antiochus, there was only enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for one day. However, a miracle happened, and the eternal light of the Temple menorah lasted for eight days, the time it took for the ceremonial olive oil to cure and keep the lights perpetually burning. Jewish people see this as a great dual miracle—that God gave the Jewish people a humanly impossible military victory and marked the event by ensuring the lights lasted the full eight days. That is why we light a candle each night as part of the eight-day festival.
The lights provide an obvious bridge between Hanukkah and Christmas. When my kids were small, I used to take them through parts of Brooklyn during the Christmas season just to see the homes decorated with lights in the most magnificent ways. Some neighborhoods looked like they belonged in Rockefeller Center or Times Square at New Year’s!
The tradition of giving presents is also important for both holidays. Jewish people give one gift to their kids each night of Hanukkah, and the tradition of giving presents on Christmas, in the tradition of the magi at Jesus’ birth, continues until this very day. Of course, both holidays are often over-commercialized, but in my opinion, there is never a bad time to give presents, as long as you are focused on the real reason for this season. Jewish people are thankful to God for preserving the nation and express this thanksgiving by giving presents to one another. This is similar to Christmas, as we show our gratitude to God for sending His only Son to die for our sins by giving presents.
This is a great time of the year to show your gratitude to God and to the Jewish people by giving an end-of-year gift to Chosen People Ministries that will be used to reach Jewish people for Jesus!
And then there are the wonderful and delicious traditional holiday foods! Jewish people eat potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly donuts (sufganiyot). These are all cooked in oil and eaten to remind us that God enabled a day’s worth of oil to miraculously last for eight days. Christmas, depending on where you come from, is replete with wonderful and different types of food as well. From Christmas cookies to Norwegian pinnekjøtt (lamb or mutton rib) to delicious Italian panettone, the holiday foods are an essential part of our celebration.
What I like best about both Hanukkah and Christmas, though, is the focus on family. It is one of the reasons why this holiday season can be so sad for those who have lost loved ones or do not have a family, either physical or spiritual. Enjoying the holiday with family, whether relatives or “congregational family,” is truly beautiful. I pray that, if you have lost a loved one recently, God will give you a full measure of His grace and joy during this season of the year.
A Messianic Jewish Perspective
As a Messianic Jew, I am always looking for deeper links between the festivals and believe there is an absolutely amazing parallel that I want to share with you.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 10, we see that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication. (The Hebrew word Hanukkah literally means “dedication.”) The festival also served as a platform for Jesus to make one of His most profound statements about His person and ministry recorded in the New Testament.
It is this one statement that I believe brings Hanukkah and Christmas together in the most dramatic and profound way.
At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:22–30).
When asked if He was the Messiah, Jesus did not give a simple yes or no. Rather, He revealed His true nature to the Jewish leaders and declared that He and His Father were one. This declaration affirms the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah who predicted that, one day, God would take on human flesh, dwell among us, and reveal the character of our heavenly Father in the most tangible of ways.
Isaiah wrote, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
It is only fitting that Jesus made this declaration on the Feast of Dedication, which reminds us of the great miracle of the Incarnation and revelation of God’s glory and light. This parallels the symbolism found in the menorah in the Temple as God Himself is the true light that illuminates our hearts and souls. As Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12).
The real link between Hanukkah and Christmas is Jesus Himself. He is God in the flesh; the light of the world who dispels our personal darkness and transfers us to the kingdom of His Son. As Isaiah predicted and Jesus fulfilled,
“But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (Isaiah 9:1–2).
And Paul adds,
“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son…” (Colossians 1:13).
I hope you have great joy in this marvelous deliverance! I also pray you have a wonderful season of joy and that the light of your personal testimony of God’s grace and victory will shine brightly among Jews and Gentiles during this special season of the year!
Your brother in the Light of the World,
P.S. We are now beginning our 126th year as a ministry among the Jewish people. Thank you for your faithful prayers and support. We are excited about 2020. Stick with us!