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by Tim O'Hearn

There used to be a staple of newspaper comics pages where two seemingly identical pictures were placed side-to-side and the reader was asked to find ten differences between the two. Some of the discrepancies were easy (a person wearing or not wearing a hat), and some were a little harder (three stripes on a cat’s tail versus two). The Sesame Street version shows three things that are in some way alike and one thing that doesn’t belong. Another variation can be found in some variety puzzle magazines. Along with crosswords and cryptoquizzes there might be a page with ten seemingly similar pictures and the reader is asked which two are identical. Each of eight options may have some minor, or occasionally major, difference from the two that match. To make it interesting the differences are often very subtle.

An even more interesting variation might be to take two apparently different things and ask how they are the same, and how different in their sameness. For instance, what do Christmas and Hanukkah have in common, and how are these commonalities different?

One obvious answer would be that they are both celebrated in or near December. Hanukkah begins on 25 Kislev in the Jewish calendar (the evening of December 2, 2018) and lasts for seven days. Christmas is always December 25 (Gregorian calendar). It is true that they are not identical in that one lasts for seven nights and the other just one. Another difference about the similar dates is a little more subtle. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple after it had been profaned by the Greeks. This dedication, and the supposed miracle that happened, took place historically on 25 Kislev and the nights following. On the other hand, Christmas is celebrated on an arbitrary date that has nothing to do with the actual event being celebrated. According to hints in the Bible, Jesus was probably born in March/April or September/October. (For a detailed analysis of this, see “An Age-Old Argument” in Minutes With Messiah, December 2008.) The most common explanation is that Christmas was placed a couple of days after the Roman Saturnalia to allow gentiles to still celebrate a common holiday but make it about Jesus.

Both are extrabiblical holidays. Hanukkah was ordained by the rabbis and is not found in Leviticus. It was established to celebrate events that happened after the Hebrew Bible was completed. While the events that precipitated the holiday may have been predicted by Daniel, the revolt against the Greeks is recorded in the books of the Maccabees, which neither Jews nor most Christians accept as inspired. Orthodox churches and Roman Catholics include those books in the canon, although there are some problems concerning inspiration. Christmas, on the other hand, has no equivalent in the Bible, even in questionable books. The earliest known celebration of Christmas was about 300 years after Jesus was crucified. In 245, Origen of Alexandria argued that in the Bible only pagans (Pharaoh, Herod) celebrated birthdays, while saints lamented the day of their birth. Having no authority in scripture, however, does not mean that people cannot celebrate. It just means they have no scriptural authority commanding them to do so.

Both holidays are celebrations of light. Although the “miracle of the oil” often associated with Hanukkah was not recorded until the holiday had been celebrated for about 300 years, it has always been a celebration of the rededication of the temple, which would have been highlighted by (pun intended) the relighting of the menorah. Because the lighting of the candles is to be a very public display, it is a holiday that proclaims to the world the light of Judaism. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) Christmas is, therefore, a celebration of that light. It is symbolized by a star, and candles have long played a major role in Christmas celebrations. Decorated Christmas trees had candles on them. The lighting of “luminarias” is a major part of Southwestern tradition.

Christmas and Hanukkah may sometimes seem at odds with each other. In modern times there is crossover between traditions, though. There may be no real value in comparing the two, but it can be fun. And fun is always of value.