In December, Christians and Jews both find themselves with celebrations in the same month – Christmas for the Christians, Chanukah for the Jews. Christmas marks the birth of Jesus: Chanukah celebrates the struggle of the Maccabees for freedom of worship.
This is the second time in the year when Christian and Jewish festivals often coincide. The other occasion is when the Christians have Easter and the Jews observe Passover.
Of the two occasions, the Easter-Passover co-incidence is the more intrinsic because the Easter events occurred at Passover time in the fateful year when Jesus was crucified.
Chanukah and Christmas, however, have no basic connection, other than being popular and the fact that both are feasts of light. Further, Christmas is crucial to Christianity where Chanukah is officially a minor festival, though as we shall see it has a message that specially resonates in today’s climate of cordiality between religions.
That cordiality has been given new emphasis with the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate,* the Vatican Council declaration that opened a new chapter in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Other Christian communities are also part of the Christian-Jewish rapprochement, though some still find it hard to shake off the old mentality of Christian supersessionism, triumphalism and theological egotism.
Still, the impetus is inexorable, not that the future will lack tensions nor that differences concerning views of God, the world, man’s nature and the status of Jesus will vanish.
Some people make it too easy by constructing hybrids such as Chrisnukah celebrations in which Christmas trees and the Chanukah candelabrum figure jointly, with Christmas carols and Chanukah hymns both on the agenda. The result? Religious syncretism which helps neither group.
Nor does it help to echo the simplistic slogans about a “Judeo-Christian tradition”. The two faiths differ profoundly on theology, ethics and attitudes.
Joseph Klausner, famous for his work on 1st century Judaism, pointed out that doctrines and views do not grow out of nothing or disappear in a flash.
Despite following some of the doctrines of Jewish scripture, Christianity grew into a new religion after the death of Jesus, though he himself did not always limit himself to Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. He was a Jew, brought up in Hebrew culture: but the religion about him is not Judaism.
After all these centuries, Christians cannot now abandon their own beliefs and still be Christian. Nor can Jews move away from Jewish teachings and still be Jewish.
This explains why some groups do no service to either faith with their attempt to have their theological cake and eat it, arguing that one can be both Jewish and Christian.
It is a mystery that they can say the Jewish Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”) yet support the Trinity; that they can fast on the Day of Atonement but claim that only through Jesus is sin overcome; that they can acclaim the Jewish Torah and also hold that salvation does not come its commandments; that they can yearn for the Jewish messiah and hold that the messianic criteria were fulfilled in Christ.
Because the two faiths have their own commitments and principles, there is no way that Christmas and Chanukah can genuinely merge, despite all the goodwill that is represented by Nostra Aetate and the new climate.
What can and should happen, however, is suggested by a basic Chanukah message.
Arising out of the Maccabean struggle for freedom of worship, Chanukah can say to today’s world, “Respect each other’s humanity and conscience, always speak to each other, and always speak well of one another”.
With this message we can be good neighbours, relaxed about living in proximity but without feeling any need to take over each other’s house.
* This article originally appeared in 2005.