Hanukkah begins the evening of December 10 in 2020. The most notable aspect of the holiday is the nightly lighting of the hanukkiah, sometimes called a menorah. It is unclear when the practice of Hanukkah lights began. Josephus, who was born around the time Jesus died, knew nothing of the practice, although the holiday was already called the Festival of Lights. About a hundred years later some rabbis wrote about the Hanukkah candle, singular. By 400 AD/CE, the current practice had become common. Probably the practice came from Roman Saturnalia, in which neighbors exchanged candles. This is the same Roman holiday that probably influenced the date of the celebration of Jesus’ birth, even though that was probably in April or October. (In an interesting juxtaposition of the two holidays coming out of Saturnalia, some Jews now put up a Hanukkah bush, corresponding to their neighbors’ Christmas tree.)
At one time there was a debate over whether eight candles were lit on the first night and decreased nightly until only one was lit, or one candle was lit on the first night and increased until eight were lit on the last night of the holiday. Obviously, the latter practice won out. One part of the tradition is certain. The hanukkiah is supposed to be placed where it can be seen from outside the house. In Germany under the Nazis, some hid the lights while others, even in the death camps, proudly displayed the lights. In recent years some non-Jewish families have placed a hanukkiah in their windows in support of Jewish neighbors who were the victims of antisemitic demonstrations.
Clearly, then, Jesus was not speaking of the hanukkiah when he said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 5:16) Nevertheless, the principle is still the same. The purpose of a lamp is to give light, and the purpose of the lamp of our life is to enlighten the world. Jesus says that we are to be like a city on a hill. At night, when the city lights are lit, travelers can see it from afar. How many people over the centuries have been encouraged when they finally see city lights!
“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” (Matt 5:15) There was a time when some people used a “dark lantern.” This light had a shutter so that the light could be hidden without extinguishing the flame. Perhaps the best-known story using such a lantern is Poes The Tell-Tale Heart, at one point in which the narrator opens the lantern just a slit and the light falls on the open eye of the man the narrator is about to murder. It is just that eye shining in the light that gives the narrator the impetus to commit the murder. Most of the time, though, the purpose of lighting a lamp was to give light.
Our purpose is to give light. Just as a lamp doesn’t draw attention to itself, so we spread the light of the gospel, but not for our own purposes. Jesus said it was so that men may “glorify your Father.” This, coincidentally, is the same reason the hanukkiah is placed in a window to the outside. It says that this family chooses to let the world know that God is light. The Hanukkah lights are not to be used for mundane purposes. It would be improper to light a cigarette from one of the candles, or use it to read a book. It has a nobler purpose.
We have a choice if the light of God is in us. We can be a dark lantern, with the shutter closed. Or we can be a hanukkiah in the window.