Why December has so many holidays
While there’s no single explanation, many experts agree that December holidays date back to ancient celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year but also marks a sort of “birth of light”—because every day after that grows slightly longer for the next six months. The winter solstice occurs in the third week of December. When the Christian religion began celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ at the end of the third century AD, it is believed that church officials settled on December 25 in order to coincide with existing pagan festivals surrounding the solstice, thus making it easier to convince the pagan worshipers to accept Christianity.
Hanukkah isn’t the Jewish Christmas
Because Hanukkah and Christmas tend to fall around the same time of year, people often wonder if Hanukkah is a Jewish version of Christmas. At least religiously speaking, it is not.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah (the spelling of which we will discuss below) has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, and the event it commemorates—the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, where the Jews had successfully risen up against their oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt—occurred a couple of hundred years before Jesus’s birth. Hanukkah is often referred to as the “Festival of Lights” because according to the Talmud (one of the Jewish religion’s central texts), when the Jews took back their Temple after the battle, they had only enough oil left to keep the lights burning for a single day—and yet, miraculously, the lights burned bright for another eight nights, thus leaving time to locate a fresh supply of oil.
The Hanukkah celebration involves the lighting and blessing of a nine-branched candelabra known as a menorah or a hanukkiah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added and lit; the ninth candle (called the “shamash”) is the helper candle that is used to light all the others. Hanukkah doesn’t even necessarily take place in December. It always begins on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which can fall anywhere from late November to late December in the secular calendar.
But you’re right to see the similarities
Jews have always celebrated the rededication of the temple and the miracle of the lights, although that celebration bore no resemblance to Christmas until the late 1800s. That’s when two rabbis in Cincinnati intentionally brought a Christmas-y feel to the festivities. Growing concerned that Jewish children seemed increasingly disconnected to their religion, they developed a new celebration for children during Hanukkah that included giving presents. National newspapers publicized this, and in no time, the Jewish community in America had reshaped Hanukkah as something children and their families could celebrate while other American families were celebrating Christmas. It also became a way for the Jewish community to feel a part of something so culturally significant in America. You’ll definitely want to try these fun and easy Hanukkah crafts.