Hanukkah and Christmas share a special day

Dec. 25 marks the start of the eight-day Jewish festival.

Published December 23, 2005

In case you didn't know, millions of people are getting ready to celebrate a holiday on Dec. 25. It's called Hanukkah.

Millions more will celebrate Christmas on the very same day.

Call it a Judeo-Christian harmonic convergence. For the first time since 1959, the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah begins on the evening of Dec. 25, a.k.a. Christmas.

It's a coincidence that could make the holidays a bit more hectic for interfaith couples, but which also ensures that both Christian and Jewish children get to play with their toys while on vacation from school. On the lunar-based Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, a date that sometimes falls in late November or earlier in December.

"I just think it's nice that everyone can learn from each other, and hopefully everyone gets some growth from experiencing both holidays," said Alissa Fischel, co-chair of the Tampa Jewish Community Center program board.

"It has given us a chance to talk a lot truthfully about what the holidays are and aren't," said Jim Barrens, executive director of the center for Catholic/Jewish Studies at St. Leo University.

On the morning of Dec. 25, millions of American children will enjoy the secular part of Christmas by ripping wrapping paper off the presents that are (hopefully) stacked under their Christmas trees. Many Christians will observe the religious meaning of the holiday, the birth of Jesus, by attending Sunday morning services.

In the evening, Jewish families will light the first candle of Hanukkah, also called the "Festival of Lights. It commemorates a miracle - Jews known as the Maccabees were rededicating their temple after defeating the Syrians in 165 B.C., and even though they only had one night's worth of oil for their holy lamp, it stayed lit for eight nights.

Many families will open presents each night along the way.

Although this means millions of people from two of the world's major religions will be celebrating on Dec. 25, many religious leaders said it would be a mistake to think of the holidays as equivalent.

"The biggest issue that arises from years when Hanukkah falls in close proximity to Christmas is that it contributes to the misunderstanding within the entire community of Hanukkah's role in the Jewish Calendar," said Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg.

Jewish religious leaders such as Torop would like others to know: Hanukkah is not the Jewish version of Christmas. It is not considered as significant as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana and others.

"Hanukkah's a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar," agreed Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. It has taken on a greater presence because of the majority culture that celebrates Christmas, he said.

Christian families give each other gifts on Christmas, and American Jewish families have been influenced by this tradition. Ironically, some Christians and Jews alike wonder if the gift-giving has become excessive, and threatens to override the religious meaning of the holidays.

"If there is something we both share, it's (the concern that) Christians have become increasingly out of touch with the religious message and religious significance of Christmas, focusing in on the commercialism and secular aspects of the celebration," Torop said. "And I think many Jews have lost touch with the religious messages that underlie Hanukkah, simply focusing on lighting the menorah, giving presents, eating latkes; the trappings of the holidays but not the core message."

For Torop, the core message of Hanukkah is "about pride in being Jewish and Jewish identity... about believing in the possibility of God being present in our lives"

But he believes both Christian and Jewish leaders would like to "refocus our adherents on the significant faith messages" of the holidays.

Pastor Kim Wells of Lakewood United Church of Christ said the convergence of the two holidays is "a wonderful way to see our common ground" and to recognize that it's an important day for Christians and Jews alike.