Hanukkah: a celebration for all people who love light

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 16, 2009

It celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and it resonates with the longings of all people of goodwill everywhere, whatever their traditions and cultures.

Hanukkah (Channukah), the eight-day festival of light celebrated among Jews around the time of the winter solstice, began this year at sundown Dec. 11 (the eve of Kislev 25 in the Jewish calendar). It is a time for friends, food, games, gift-giving, and especially for lighting the menorah.

The celebration dates back almost 2,200 years to the time when the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) attempted to impose Hellenistic customs on the people of Israel, forbidding them to practice their own religious traditions and forcing them to do things forbidden in Jewish law, including eating swine’s flesh. He even went so far as to desecrate the temple in Jerusalem by pillaging and redesignating it the temple of Olympian Zeus, offering pagan sacrifices on its sacred altar.

His outrageous sacrilege in the temple so agitated devout Jews that they successfully rose up against him in what has become known as the Maccabean revolt.

They reclaimed the temple and set about rededicating it, but found only enough ritually pure olive oil to keep the temple candle lit for a single day. Miraculously, the candle burned for eight days, till a fresh supply of purified oil could be prepared.

Hanukkah is the commemoration of this miracle. Central to the festival is the lighting of the menorah, or candelabrum. Unlike the seven-candle menorah that has been associated with the Jewish nation from antiquity, however, a nine-candle menorah – or hanukkiyah – is used for Hanukkah. One candle is lit at sundown on each of the eight days, one on the first day, two on the second day, etc., till on the last day all eight candles are lit. The ninth candle is used to light the others.

The lighting of the menorah is accompanied by prayers of gratitude for God’s protection and provision.

Although Judaism follows a lunar, and not a solar, calendar, I find the occurrence of Hanukkah around the time of the winter solstice nevertheless instructive, especially because of its celebration of light and hope returning after the period of darkness.

The shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere – December 21 this year – has been a time of celebration among many traditions, as the sun once again begins its travel northward and the long hours of night yield to the increasing hours of daylight.

The Yuletide celebrations of Icelandic (Scandinavian) origin are largely about the return of the sun. For several years, now, I’ve enjoyed the festive gatherings at the Cochrane home of Icelandic coffee companion Helgi Eyford, whose birthday coincides with the winter solstice. His jovial rituals and dancing at his parties must obviously have worked, because the sun kept coming back and happiness filled his home.

The Persian celebration of Yalda goes back thousands of years, finding its roots in Zoroastrianism. This festival, replete with bonfires and special foods, celebrates the forces of light and order overcoming the forces of darkness and disorder.

Throughout much of the Christian world, culturally speaking at least, Christmas wouldn’t be what it has become without brightly coloured light displays which, according to Christians, celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Light of the world which the darkness could not extinguish.

Speaking of Christmas, the date of December 25 was actually the date of the winter solstice under the older Julian calendar and was originally celebrated under pagan custom as the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. Christianity appropriated the date as the officially recognized birthday of Jesus. When the calendar was subsequently revised so that the winter solstice fell around December 21, the December 25 date for Christmas remained.

In all these traditions, and in many, many others as well, one thought rises above the rest: People of goodwill everywhere long for light and resist the darkness.

For me, as a Christian, that is the inspiration I take from the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

In the spirit of Hanukkah, then, and with special gratitude to my Jewish mentors, I will close with lines from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah (60:1–3 Tanakh):

Arise, shine; for your light has dawned;
The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!
Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth,
And thick clouds the peoples;
But upon you the Lord will shine,
And His Presence be seen over you.
And nations shall walk by your light,
Kings, by your shining radiance.

Happy Hanukkah!

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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