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December 17, 2016 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129

A Christmas/Hanukkah Convergence

Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar the date of Hanukkah can shift on the Gregorian calendar anywhere from late November to late December.  On the Hebrew calendar it is celebrated on Kislev 25. Christmas today is celebrated on December 25, since Pope Julius I declared it so in the year 337 AD.  This year the two holy days converge.  They both fall on exactly the same day.

The date of Hanukkah has always been fixed.  It celebrates the rededication of the second Temple in the year 164 BC.  Antiochus IV Epiphanies sought to destroy the Jewish religion in 168 BC.  He attacked Jerusalem killing thousands of Jews.  He set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple with his own facial image.  He sacrificed a pig on the alter.  In 166 there was a revolt led by the family of Hasmon, later called Maccabees.  They took back Jerusalem in the year 164 and rededicated the Temple.  Hanukkah, which is the Hebrew word for “dedication,” was celebrated from that time.

The story found in the Talmud, but not in the two books of Maccabees, tells of the relighting of the Temple menorah.  There was just enough consecrated oil to last one day.  It took eight days to prepare additional oil for use in the Temple.  The menorah was lit and the one day’s supply lasted for eight days until additional oil could be produced and consecrated.  This story is recalled by lighting the Hanukkah menorah during the eight days of the feast, this year beginning on December 25.

Jesus is recorded as celebrating Hanukkah in Jerusalem in the winter of 29 AD (Jn. 10:22ff).

The date for Christmas has a more complex history.  Since the time of Jesus birth was not known by the early Church the mass, or Eucharist, celebrating that event was a guessing game.  Various customs were practiced.  The Roman culture in the early centuries of the Church had several celebrations in December.  Saturnalia was the celebration of the deity of Saturn and was kept on December 17.  The period of festivities was extended to December 23.  There was also a celebration of the return of the sun at the winter solstice which falls this year on December 21.  Pope Julius, likely with the encouragement of the emperor Constantine, decided to conscript the pagan holidays and use them as a celebration of the birth of the Savior.  Thus he declared December 25 as the Christ Mass in the year 337 AD.

The period of Hasmonean rule in Israel lasted until 63 BC when Pompey captured Jerusalem. If we date the period from the original conquest of Jerusalem (164 BC) this would be a period of about a hundred years.  This was fresh in the Jewish mind during the ministry of Jesus.  Herod the Great even had one wife who was a Hasmonean princess.  The Messianic expectations of Israel were conditioned by this recent history.  Messiah was to give them back their independence from Rome.

As Israel celebrates Hanukkah today they celebrate the fulfillment of their hope since 1948.  As Christians celebrate Christmas they celebrate the Savior who freed them from the sin’s debt and placed them in the family of God.  It will be truly a festival of light.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at END-whs