“As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles.”
Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday no one knows how to spell, began on Christmas Eve and ended on New Year’s Day. The last time this happened was in 1978, and it will take another generation before such complete holiday overlap happens again.
It isn’t Christmas’s fault. Under the Gregorian calendar, which is solar, the holiday falls reliably on December 25. The problem is with Chanukah, which operates under the Jewish calendar, which is lunar. Like Christmas, it also falls on the 25th day of the month, but it’s the Hebrew month of Kislev, not December. Having consulted Rabbi Google, I can report that the lunar year is shorter than the one we all use, and that is what causes Jewish holidays to fall on different dates from year to year.
What, exactly, does Hanukkah celebrate? The answer, according to the Bible, is that in 165 B.C. Judah Maccabee and his brothers led a successful revolt against Antiochus, the wicked King of Syria, who had banned the practice of the Jewish religion. After removing the statue of Zeus from the courtyard and reclaiming the Jewish Holy Temple, the first order of business was to ignite the eternal flame that hangs over the alter in every synagogue. There was barely enough oil to last a day, but miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days.
And that is why, today, Jews celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah by lighting eight candles on the menorah (a nine-branched candelabrum), one the first night, two the second, and so forth. The extra candle on the menorah, called the shamus (servant) candle, is used to light the others.
Hanukkah, long regarded as a relatively minor holiday, has become the Jewish version of Christmas, at least in the commercial sense. Stores sell special wrapping paper, cards, candles of various colors, and other items suitable for the holiday. Presents, including “Hanukkah gelt” (money), are exchanged each night.
Unlike the 1950s Claremont of my youth, Hanukkah has become very much in the public eye, with menorahs installed along with Christmas trees in stores and office buildings. Jews wish Christians a “Merry Christmas,” and non-Jews wish their Jewish friends a “Happy Hanukkah” (with an “H”) or for those intrepid enough a “Happy Chanukah” (with the guttural “Ch.”) When people aren’t quite sure, they use the generic “Happy Holidays,” a term which soon-to-be President Trump has denounced.
In some ways, these two holidays have merged into the spirit of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” President Roosevelt used those words as part of his 1943 Christmas address, delivered during the dark days of World War II. Just weeks ago, in his annual Hanukkah greeting, President Obama quoted George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Last month, here in New Hampshire, we exchanged gifts, enjoyed holiday meals, and embraced our family and friends. We kindled lights to celebrate the miracles of Christmas and Hanukkah.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, countless refugees, victims of another war, live in darkness. One hundred of them will arrive in Rutland this year, assuming they are allowed to enter the country. Millions of others can only envy their good fortune, dream of what we take for granted, and pray for a 21st century miracle.