I thought long and hard about how I might begin my sermon on this special Shabbos. I agonized with this approach and with that approach, and this is what I came up with: “Merry Christmas, merry Christmas!” We don’t hear this so much anymore because it’s been deemed not pc. But I do wish our Christian neighbors a merry Christmas tonight. And I do wish all of us tonight a happy 1st night of Chanukah. I looked through my 200-year Hebrew Calendar book and this unique juxtaposition of the Jewish and secular calendars—where Christmas Eve and the 1st night of Chanukah coincide—has only happened twice in the last 100 years—1978 and 1940!
It’s helpful when these holidays come out at the same time because we can tell our kids they have off from school because it’s Chanukah. We’re singing when Christians are singing. We give gifts when they give gifts. We celebrate when they celebrate! The problem is that when they come together people tend to assume they’re both basically the same. The fact is, notes Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, “While Chanukah and Christmas are very different, Chanukah does have a unique meaning to Christians while Christmas, over the centuries, had a special meaning for Jews.”
Most people are not aware of the fact that the miracle of the Maccabees defeating the Syrian Greeks took place about 165 years before the birth of Jesus. Chanukah was the 1st battle in history for religious freedom. If the Maccabees had not been victorious, not only would there not have been a continuation of Judaism, there never would have been the start of Christianity.
Perhaps that’s why the early Christian Church considered the Maccabees to be martyrs. The “Book of the Maccabees,” while not included in the Tanach (our Bible) because the Tanach had already been canonized before the story of Chanukah took place, is included it in the New Testament! In fact, we only know the story of the Maccabees because Christians preserved it in the New Testament. The Roman Catholic Church honored the Maccabee martyrs as saints and the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates August 1st as the “Feast of the Holy Maccabees.”
Now if Chanukah has meaning to Christians, what meaning does Christmas have to Jews? To tell the truth, Christmas Eve was one of the most dreaded nights in Jewish history. In fact, for centuries, Jews in Europe were told not to study Torah on Christmas Eve. There was even a special name given to this night: Nitel Nacht. Nitel, some say, is an acronym for the Yiddish phrase nit toren lernen (you’re not allowed to learn) so Nitel Nacht means, “The night you’re not allowed to learn.”
Why? Because in those days in Europe, Christians would go to church on Christmas Eve and hear sermons of how the Jews killed their lord. After church, it was not uncommon for some to seek out Jews to beat up or worse. The Jews were then told to stay home, for going out on the streets on Christmas Eve meant putting your life in danger! We’ve come a long way—Baruch Hashem—from those days. In fact, there is now a Chanukah party in the White House every year!
Rabbi Marc Gellman wrote a beautiful piece about Jews and Christmas trees and a revered colleague that illustrates just how far we’ve come. Let me share some of it with you:
T’was the week before Christmas…and I was early for a meeting in New York City, and I had drifted into Bloomingdale’s to kill some time…When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but old Rabbi Moshe Forman (not his real name) ascending the escalator along with all the yuppies. Seeing an old Orthodox rabbi in Bloomies is like seeing Santa in a yeshiva. It makes you ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?” So sure was I that my old colleague and friend Rabbi Forman had wandered into Bloomies by mistake that I ran after him up the escalator. I guess I feared that he would be picked up by the security guards the next morning, lost, hungry and unconscious in ladies lingerie…
Words fail me in describing what I saw…Rabbi Forman scholar of the Talmud, head of the orthodox rabbinical court in Queens, scion of a rabbinic dynasty from the Carpathian mountains, disciple of the Tzanzer Rav, the only person in his family to survive the Holocaust, was looking at the Christmas trees in Bloomingdale’s!
He stood motionless in front of the decorated Christmas trees. One tree was called, “Victorian Delight,” another, “Golden Dreams”…I walked up behind him and touched him slowly so as not to startle him, and I said, “Rabbi Forman are you all right?” But he did not answer me or move. He was staring at a table of golden Christmas tree angels under a sign, “Take 20% off ticketed price.” Then Rabbi Forman said in a low voice, as if to someone other than me, “There were no angels in the trees around Belzec.”
Belzec, along with Sobibor and Treblinka were death camps—not forced labor camps—but death camps. They were built for only one purpose, to kill all the Jews of Poland and 600,000 Jews were killed in Belzec, among them Rabbi Forman’s entire family. He escaped from the place in some way he would never reveal to me.
“You see that snow on the branches of that Christmas tree?” Rabbi Forman pointed to that artificial snow you spray on the branches to fool people into thinking that it has just snowed in your living room. Before I could say a thing he said, “The trees around Belzec had snow like that on their branches all year long. It was gray snow, but it was not snow. It was the ashes of my parents’ bodies which coated the branches of the trees around Belzec.” After a long time during which he said nothing and I said nothing, we left Bloomingdale’s.
As was my custom, I gave Rabbi Forman a lift back home to Queens [after the meeting]. In the car I asked him, “What [did you think of the Christmas trees]?”…
“It was beautiful. Amazing and joyous. I have never seen such colored lights and the music and the angels…the angels were very beautiful…There were no angels in the trees around Belzec [just the Christmas trees adorned with the ashes of my parents].”
And so, yes, while it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…unlike for Jews of previous generations, that’s really not a problem for us. We’ve certainly come a long way. Christians deserve to celebrate their holidays just as we deserve to celebrate ours. And if you’re looking for something to do on Christmas—I mean Chanukah—because the whole town closes down, let me tell you, as your rabbi, that it’s all right to study Torah tonight! And if you find it too difficult to break that tradition, come to our Chinese Food, Latkes & Vodka Chanukah party tonight.
So, let’s wish our Christian neighbors a merry Christmas with a full heart. Christmas deserves to be celebrated by Christians for what it is—a religious holiday, not a secular one. And so should Chanukah be for us. May we and they both think about what we can do to make these days not just days off, but holy days. Then perhaps it just might really become a time for “Peace on earth and good will to all.”
Let me close with the words of a holiday card that says it all:
Hanukkah and Christmas –
Two different holidays, but each a celebration
Of peace and joy, of love and family and friends.
As we celebrate this season with different meaningful symbols and different rich traditions, may we also remember to celebrate the many things we share –
Our heartfelt wish for peace on earth,
Joy in our homes
And love in our hearts.
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis