Yahshua’s Chanukkah and the Truth about Christmas

Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue

22 “Then came Chanukkah in Yerushalayim. It was winter,

23 and Yahshua was walking around inside the Temple area, in Shlomo’s Colonnade.

24 So the Judeans surrounded him and said to him, “How much longer are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us publicly!”

25 Yahshua answered them, ‘I have already told you, and you don’t trust me. The works I do in my Father’s name testify on my behalf,

26 but the reason you don’t trust is that you are not included among my sheep.

27 My sheep listen to my voice, I recognize them, they follow me,

28 and I give them eternal life. They will absolutely never be destroyed, and no one will snatch then from my hands.

29 My Father, who gave them to me, is greater than all; and no one can snatch from the Father’s hands.

30 I and the Father are one.’”

Before we examine Chanukkah mentioned in verses 22-23, let’s look at an overview of this chapter. In earlier verses, Yahshua identified himself as the good shepherd (vv.11-14) and identified those that came before Him as thieves and robbers. Furthermore, He states He has other sheep, which are not from this pen, namely Gentiles, whom Yahshua says He will combine with the Jews into one flock under himself, the one shepherd. Although at first, He sent his talmidim (disciples), only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5), and spoke of his own commission in the same way (Matt. 15:24), this limitation applied only to his life before the resurrection. Moreover, He intimated the coming inclusion of Gentiles when He healed the Roman army officer’s orderly (Matt. 8:5-13) and the daughter of the woman from Cana’an (Matt. 15:22-28). He also ministered to the woman at the well in Shomron (4:1-26), and prophesied that many would come from the east and the west to sit with the Patriarchs (Matt. 8:11), and that some nations (Gentiles), would be judged favorably (Matt. 25:31-46).

This joining of non-Jews to G-d’s people is alluded to again at 11:52 and is the major subject of the book of Acts, of Sha’ul’s letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and the book of Revelation. The in-gathering of Gentiles has begun but is not complete. Portions of the Bible have been translated into more than 1,800 languages, but there are some 5,000 languages spoken, depending on what is defined as a language. There are believers in the Messiah and in G-d’s Word among hundreds of peoples, but hundreds of other peoples are virtually “blind” to the message. These “other sheep” will continue to be added “until the Gentile world enters into its fullness” (Rom. 11:25).

Often the Tanakh also has the salvation of Gentiles in view; see for example, Genesis 12:3; 18:14; 22:18; 26:4; Isaiah 11:10; 19:6; 54:1-3; 60:1-3; Hosea 1:10; Amos 9:11; Malachi 1:11; Psalms 72,87. Isaiah 45:23 is quoted by Sha’ul in this connection. The strongest impact of this idea on the consciousness of observant Jews comes from Zechariah 14:9, recited daily in the synagogue in the ‘Alenu prayer: “And Adonai will be king over all the earth; on that day Adonai, will be One and His name One.” While Zechariah 14:16-19 proves that eventually New Testament worship will be far more Jewish in character than what is currently done.

Now examining verse 22; Chanukkah. This is the Feast of Dedication in which Jews have celebrated the victory of the Makkabim over Antiochus IV, king of Syria, since 164 B.C.E. This is the earliest mention of the holiday in all literature and the only mention of it in the Bible since the Tanakh was completed. The apocryphal books of 1,2,3, and 4 Maccabees, presents historical and other perspectives on what happened.

Antiochus, who had been recently defeated in Egypt, expressed his frustration by attacking Judea. He ruthlessly slaughtered men, women, and children. He invaded the Temple and carried off the golden altar, menorahs, and vessels. Worst of all, he showed his contempt for the G-d of Israel by sacrificing a pig to Zeus. He forbade circumcision, Shabbat observance, and keeping kosher. He commanded that only pigs be sacrificed in the Temple and he cooked a pig in the Temple and poured its broth on the holy Torah scrolls and on the altar. Syrian officers were dispatched to enforce these cruel and blasphemous decrees. One day when the Syrian officer in Modi’in commanded Mattityahu (Ha Makkabi) (Mattathias the Maccabee (Hammer), who was the head of a family of Cohanim(priests), to sacrifice a pig, he and his five sons killed the first Jew who complied. Then he killed the officer and his soldiers. This was the start of a rebellion. After Mattityahu’s death, his son Y’hudah (Judas Maccabeus, about whom Handel wrote his oratorio so named), assembled a number of courageous Jews and led them to victory over the Syrians, first in guerrilla warfare, then in open battle. On the 25th of Kislev (this is not Christmas!), they rededicated the Temple and consecrated the new altar. The ner tamid (eternal light) was relit. Now, tradition teaches,there was only enough consecrated oil to keep it burning for one day. It would take a week to prepare more. By a miracle of G-d reported in the book of 2 Maccabees, the light burned for eight days, at which time a new batch was prepared. For this reason, Jews celebrate Chanukkah for eight days, starting on Kislev 25, which can fall between November 27 and December 27. But there is more to this event at a deeper level than traditional Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Jews realize. It is important to note however, that the miracle of the oil is not documented in the Book of Josephus and G-d did not command lighting of the menorah every night for eight nights. The real miracle was the defeat of many with just a few; a miracle that G-d has given our people since the beginning of the Jewish people. Eight nights of lighting would have been consistent with the rituals associated with consecrating anything to G-d, including rededicating the Temple. Let’s take a look at what the Book of Josephus has to say regarding the oil:

The First Hanukkah (December 164 BCE)
Antiquities 12.7.6-7 316-325 (1 Maccabees 4:36-59)
The generals of Antiochus’s armies having been defeated so often, Judah Maccabee assembled the people and told them that after the many victories which God had given them they ought to go up to Jerusalem and purify the Temple and offer the appointed sacrifices.

But when he with the whole multitude came to Jerusalem and found he Temple deserted, its gates burned down, and plants growing in the Temple of their own accord because of the desolation, he and those with him began to lament in their distress at the sight of the Temple.

So he chose some of his soldiers and gave them an order to fight the men that guarded the upper city until he has purified the Temple. When therefore he he had carefully purged it he brought in new vessels — the menorah, the table and the incense altar, which were made of gold, and hung up the veils at the doors and restored the doors themselves. He also took down the altar and built a new one of stones that he gathered together, and such as had not been hewn with iron tools.

And on the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, which the Macedonians call Apellaios, they lighted the lights [phôta] that were on the menorah, and offered incense upon the altar, and laid the loaves upon the table, and offered whole burnt offerings upon the new altar.

As it happened, these things took place on the very same day on which, three years before, the divine worship had been reduced to an impure and profane form of worship; for the Temple had remained desolate for three years after being made so by Antiochus…And the desolation of the Temple came about in accordance with the prophecy of Daniel, which had been made four hundred and eight years before; for he had revealed that the Macedonians would destroy it.

And so Judah and his fellow citizens celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasure, but everyone feasted upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and they honored God, and delighted themselves with psalms of praise and the playing of harps. Indeed, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs and, after so long a time, having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this, which we call the Festival of Lights [phôta]. As Messianic Jews, we understand that this is very appropriate with the conception of Yahshua the Messiah during this time. He is the Light of the World, the Servant Candle in the Menorah, further evidence of which exists in Genesis 1:1 with the alef-tav placed in the 4th position (middle) of the first sentence of the Torah.

The Bible does not give an exact date when Yahshua was born, but we can find this information by examining the courses of priests that served in the Temple. It would have been during the Festival of Tabernacles also known as Sukkot. This is a beautiful and wonderful parallel to the concept of Sukkot. Sukkot is translated as booth that echoes G-d’s provision for the Israelites in the desert. But this is not limited to His provision for that generation It applies to anyone who follows G-d’s Torah out of love and a desire to know more about Him. He provides for us throughout our own wilderness journeys; our pilgrimage on this earth. Moreover, Yahshua, the Messiah, is indeed G-d’s provision for His people. Although G-d and Yahshua are one and the same G-d, manifest in different roles as the situation dictates, G-d as Father provided G-d as Son to show us how to live His written Torah. Therefore, we have the Living Torah, Yahshua, and the Written Torah which are actually one and the same. Yahshua was often called “haTorah” (The Torah) or better translated as instructions. What a beautiful truth!; It is likely that Yahshua was conceived during the Feast of Chanukkah which is also fitting. The Light of the world conceived during the Festival of Lights! If we consider the gestation period of human babies, we count nine months from Chanukkah which brings us to the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths (Sukkot)!

So, what is it the story with Christmas? Christmas was instituted by Constantine to satisfy his gentile constituents. So, since the end of the third century, December 25, the time near the winter solstice of December 21, has been the generally accepted date for Christmas in Western churches. The Greek Orthodox observe January 6 and the Armenians January 19. January 1 was made the New Year since, if Yahshua was born on December 25, would have been circumcised eight days later.

Another sad truth is that Chanukkah and Christmas have become distorted in secular America. Christmas has nothing to do with Yahshua’s birth, evidenced by the types of decorations sold, the elimination of anything to do with the Nativity at major theme parks and buildings, and the general mood of this time of year. There is more anger, suicide and increased indebtedness, than at any other time of year. Expression of the “American civil religion” is expressed through meaningless customs of which few people know the origins such as trees, Santa Claus, reindeer, yule logs, mistletoe (a parasitic plant), and obligatory exchange of cards and presents. At best, it becomes a time for family togetherness although this is not always the case with visiting relatives. There is little to no thought given to G-d or Yahshua (Jesus). In Judaism, many have assimilated Chanukkah to “match” Christmas lest the children feel they are left out with no gifts, trees, or lights. There are such things as “Chanukkah trees or bushes,” and some Jews attend Christmas functions as if they were gentiles; exchanging gifts and singing around the tree.

As Messianic Jews, the faith taught by Yahshua to his Talmidim (disciples), we observe Chanukkah because He observed evidenced by the scriptures in this teaching. Chanukkah is celebrated using a special Chanukkah menorah with nine lights. One uses a match to light the shammash (servant) candle first, then lighting another candle each night to signify that we require the Light of Yahshua in order to obtain our light. After eight nights, all the candles are lit and the menorah shines brightly, similar to the menorah in the Temple. For Messianic Jews, the imagery is rich: Yahshua, the “Light of the world (8:12), came as a servant (Mark 10:45) to give light to everyone (1:4-5), so that we might be lights for others (Matt. 5:14). Some give gifts to each other and/or to children but in giving to children, we also give them “gelt” money, of which a portion is given to a charitable cause. This is to teach the children about the concept of giving from the blessings G-d bestows.

Conversely, Christmas is not a biblical holiday. The truth about Christmas can be easily researched. The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.

The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.

In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.

Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.

In the early years of Christianity, Easter, another pagan holiday, was the main holiday; the birth of “Jesus” was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of “Jesus” as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.

By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced other religions considered pagan. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.

In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.

The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. Thus, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.

After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. But what about the 1800s peaked American interest in the holiday?

The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain member of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.

In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended – in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.

Also around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, “A Christmas Carol”. The story’s message-the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind-struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday.

The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention-and gifts-on their children without appearing to “spoil” them.

As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift-giving.

Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.

With this information and much more available in today’s age of information, can people say with sincerity that they are celebrating Christmas in honor of “Jesus'” birth?

It is time to research the truth about the things we believe and practice and align our lives with Yahshua’s instructions. Perhaps starting by leaving the Christmas traditions of men and celebrating Chanukkah would be a great start!

Shalom v’brachas,

Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart

My gratitude to the History.com Staff for some of the information on the history of Christmas in addition to other references used for this teaching