As a Jewish Christian, I celebrate Hanukah and Christmas.
Hanukah occurs in December (Dec 20 this year). I think that Hanukah has become a modern Jewish substitute for Christmas (presents are given). Originally this festival celebrates the Maccabees’ defeat of the Greeks in 165 BC. The Greeks had stopped the sacrifices at the Temple. They were oppressing God’s people and trying to bring an end to God’s one true religion. But the Maccabees trusted in God and defeated their enemies. It was just like the time of the Judges and other Old Testament events when God defeated the enemies of his people.
After 100 years or so of independence the Jews were then dominated by the Romans. During this time Jesus came and died for his people’s sins. Later, the Jews were defeated by the Romans in 70 AD, and the Temple was destroyed. The Zealots had seen themselves as modern-day Maccabees. If they trusted in God, God would defeat the Romans, they thought, and save his people. But having rejected their Messiah, they were not trusting in God, and they were defeated.
The rabbis then had a problem with the story of Hanukah, because it encouraged fighting against the enemies of God’s people. They didn’t want to see their people slaughtered again. And so they changed the focus of the story. They made up a legend that said the following: when the Maccabees retook the Temple from the Greeks and rededicated it, they only found enough oil to light the Temple menorah for one day. But God did a miracle and the oil lasted for eight days. Thus the modern festival’s slogan is “A great miracle happened there”. Well actually, it didn’t! But the rabbis wanted to change the focus of the Hanukah story.
My family celebrates Hanukah. We light the candles for Hanukah for eight nights. Why? Well, why not?! We don’t need to celebrate the festival of course. We have the fulfilment of Hanukah and all the festivals in Jesus. But it’s my heritage as a Jew, so I do celebrate it. I am free in Christ to do so, or not.
My family also celebrates Christmas. As with Hanukah, Christmas is not in the Bible. As with Hanukah, if you trust in Jesus, there is no need to celebrate Christmas. What counts is trusting in Jesus all year round, on Christmas day and every day. Believing the gospel and living it out is what counts. So we don’t need to celebrate Christmas either. But we do celebrate it usually. We are free to do so, or not.
Hanukah is an opportunity to talk to Jewish people about God, about faith in God, and about Jesus. Christmas is an opportunity to present the gospel too. So I’m happy to keep both festivals and to use both evangelistically from time to time. Keeping festivals is neither here nor there. Keeping the gospel is what counts.