While this may be obvious to some, the subtle differences in the two celebrations appear to have been skimmed over by many in popular culture who have decided that, since both take place in December, and we don’t want to be insensitive to non-Christians, let’s make sure that whenever we talk about “the holiday season” we take great pains to point out how Hanukah and Christmas are each about peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, and universal brotherhood.
Except that they’re not. At least Hanukkah isn’t. Hanukah commemorates a military victory. Christmas stories and carols, at least the versions we’re regaled with throughout malls nationwide, are all about embracing everyone, while Hanukkah–not explicitly, but nevertheless–encourages sticking with, and by, your own kind to drive out the invaders.
So where does that leave the Jewish mother and child during the few weeks a year when the majority of America publicly pays lip service to peace and love (while tucking SuperSoaker Machine Guns under the tree–don’t take this as a screed against war toys; I would never tell other parents what to buy their kids for Christmas. I just find the irony amusing)? While all around us the approved buzzwords are inclusion and nonviolence, we’re lighting candles in memory of the time we chased those damn Syrian Greeks back to where they came from. While some families draw inspiration from Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus, we’ve got Judah Maccabee marching his sons into the hills, periodically sending them out again to commit acts of terrorism against the reigning government.
The values dissonance is rather striking. Especially, I would imagine, for those Jews who, during the rest of the year, see themselves as belonging more to the beating swords into plough-shares crowd. Unfortunately, the calendar proximity of Hanukah to Christmas, more than anything else, puts us in the position of symbolically glorifying battle at what is probably theoretically the most pacifist time of the year. (At least during the Passover/Easter overlap, there’s enough violence to go around for everyone.)
We modern day parents, Jewish and non, tell our kids to use their words, to play nicely, and that fighting doesn’t solve anything. But, sometimes, it does. Jews know that as well as anyone. Our history is filled with instances where, if they hadn’t fought, we wouldn’t be here to remember it.
So what do I tell my kids in December when all the little drummer boys are banging out messages of peace, love, and joy come to you, and we’re belting, “When You will have prepared the slaughter for the blaspheming foe?” (Yes, I looked up the English translation of Maoz Tsur; it’s in there.)
I tell my kids that the universe celebrated in December is an idealized one, which everyone should strive for in their own way. A universe where all are free to be who they are, as long as that doesn’t include hurting someone else in the process, or imposing their vision of Joy to the World on others. But, the world we Jews celebrate is a realistic one. Where bad things do happen to good people, and where sometimes fighting back is not merely the only recourse, it’s also the right one. Christians look forward to a time when no one will have to do battle (and honestly who, of any religion, ultimately doesn’t?). We look back to a time when we rightfully did.
At this time of the year, the press is filled with stories of the December Dilemma. But, what I want to know is, how do you solve the December Disconnect?