Starting on the 25th of Kislev, for eight successive days the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem by Judas Maccabee in 165 BCE is honoured by the Festival of Lights– Chanukah.

I honour the Maccabean Rebellion itself, having been raised on stories of The War of 1812 in the Niagara Peninsula. The time-frame between the Maccabean events and the First Century were about the same time-distance as myself born in 1954 and the War of 1812. By extrapolation, I attempt to perceive what it might have been like 150 years later for the Jewish populace in Jerusalem as I see the emotional and historical effects on the people and the land here now after Sir Isaac Brock helped bring the War of 1812 to a successful conclusion. For those who may not know it, generally speaking, a Canadian success is a draw or compromise where no one loses. The cup is always half full. We lost no territory, therefore we won.

The Maccabean Rebellion is an inspiration for us all.  Onias II, the high priest of Israel was murdered in 171 BCE. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of Syria and overlord of Palestine had defiled (made unclean) the temple. In 168 (167?) BCE close to the 25th on the Gregorian calendar, the temple was dedicated to the worship of the pagan god Zeus Olympus by Antiochus, who forbade the practice of Judaism. An altar to Zeus was set up on the high altar.

Judas Maccabee didn’t submit to this abuse and he, along with others, purged the temple three years later in 165 BCE and a new altar replaced the desecrated one. Rededicated to God with festivities, there had only been a one day supply of olive oil for the dedication, but miraculously it burned throughout the festivities until the new supply came in eight days later.

Celebrate!

The Chanukah menorah, the special eight-branch candelabrum with a shamash servant candle holder for the shamash candle to light the others, is key to celebrate this fabulous reconsecrating of sacred space. On the 25th of Kislev, the first candle, the shamash, is lit and a blessing is declared, thankful for God’s laws and for the Chanukah miracle. Next, God is thanked for giving life and allowing everyone to celebrate this time of year. On the second night, two new candles are lit with blessings, and so on. (Maybe this is where Martin Luther picked up the idea of the Advent Wreath for the Christmas Season with four candles marking the four Sundays before the 25th on the Gregorian Calendar.)

No festival is a proper festival without food and song, and Chanukah/Hanukkah is no exception. Since I love to sing, I appreciate the song portion which remind the family of the events commemorated. Children receive small gifts or money–Hanukkah gelt— chocolate coins — each evening after the candles are lit. The miracle of the oil is marked with foods fried in oil such as latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts.

The dreidel spinning top is played throughout the festival:

  1. Each player puts a certain number of coins, candies, or another object into a pot or in a pile.
  2. One player then spins the dreidel. Each of the four sides of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the side that lands up when the dreidal stops spinning indicates which part of the pot the player will receive:
  3. Nun indicates “nothing”.
  4. Gimel indicates “all”.
  5. Hei indicates “half”.
  6. Shin indicates “put in” or “match the pot”.
  7. These letters stand for Nes gadol haya sham “A great miracle has happened there.”
  8. Children also play by guessing which letter will appear when the dreidel stops, with the winner claiming the pot.
  9. In Israel, the letter pei, for the word po “here”, is substituted for shin on the dreidel, changing the resulting phrase to “A great miracle happened here.”

Some people feel, and some scholars too, that Christmas Day, December 25th, was chosen to replace a pagan festival. Perhaps. I think that the 25th of Kislev had a lot to do with it too. Since gentiles weren’t using the Jewish calendar, it simply fell to where we have it today. Why would I think this instead of other theories? Because I think the early church was thinking of the Christ child as the oil for all the nations and it simply borrowed from all traditions to make this point. Hanukkah certainly celebrates reclaiming and redeeming holy spaces of worship and the freedom to do that as one chooses.

Happy Chanukah everyone!

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