John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Two religious holidays coincide this year, featuring the symbolism of light defeating darkness. Jews will celebrate Hanukkah for eight days beginning Dec. 22. Christians will celebrate Christmas for 12 days beginning with Christmas Day on Dec. 25 and ending Jan. 5 before the Day of Epiphany.
The Jewish Festival of Lights commemorates the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt succeeded in conquering the occupying Seleucid, or Greek, powers in 165 B.C. The foreign ruler, Antiochus IV, who called himself Epiphanes, meaning God manifest, had sacrificed a pig to the god Zeus on an altar in the Jewish temple.
Judas Maccabeus and his band of brothers came out of the Judean hills to liberate the people, reconsecrate the temple and set up the Second Jewish Commonwealth that lasted a hundred years.
When the Jews cleansed the temple, they found only enough oil to keep the lamps burning for a day. The oil lasted eight days.
Although it’s not a major festival, Hanukkah is popular in Jewish households because it generally falls around the time Christians prepare to celebrate Christmas. Each day, a gift is opened, and another candle is lit on the menorah, an eight-candle candelabra. Games are played with children, often featuring a dreidel.
Hanukkah calls attention to the moral light of a pure heart and an enlightened society that has liberty and justice for all. It’s not hard to see the connection to Jesus, who is called the Light of the World. He was born to a Jewish family in a stable in Bethlehem under a bright star.
Christians began celebrating the birth of Christ on Dec. 25, 336 A.D. Christmas wasn’t a major Christian feast for the first 300 years, but after Emperor Constantine converted to the faith, pagan holidays around the winter solstice were commandeered.
The Roman festival of the unconquered sun occurred Dec. 25 just days after the longest day of darkness on Dec. 21 gave way to renewing light. Similarly, the birthday of the Persian god of light, Mithras, also known as the Sun of Righteousness, was celebrated at that time.
The renewal of the world in strengthening light, the Sun of Righteousness and the Son of God all came together in a single holiday.
Christians string lights on their houses and trees during the season leading up to Christmas — although, strictly speaking, that is the season of Advent. Commercial considerations have reshaped the popular calendar. However, many church leaders valiantly call for patience and penitence in the weeks before Christmas.
Whether by candlelight or electric lights, the message flickers still: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”