Holiday Tales and Traditions
This year, Christmas Eve and the start of Hanukkah fall on the same day, a rare aligning of the Gregorian and Lunar calendars. And so, we'll explore the customs and origins of these holidays -- the symbols they share, how they differ, and how much they've borrowed from each other - and from more ancient, Pagan celebrations.
- Stephen Reno - Former professor of Comparative Religion and Chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire, and current Executive Director of Leadership New Hampshire.
- Sally Newhall - A minister serving as Pastor of Nashua Presbyterian Church.
- Jon Spira-Savett - Rabbi at Nashua's Temple Beth Abraham, a center for Jewish families in Southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts. He is the former president of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council.
This year, the first night of Chanukah arrives on Christmas Eve. And while that overlap is rare, the two winter holidays actually have a good amount in common. This includes some borrowing from Pagan and Roman celebrations. Both of these paid special tribute to the Solstice, and so it’s no accident that Christmas and Chanukah occur right around this time.
Speaking on "The Exchange," Reverend Sally Newhall of Nashua Presbyterian Church noted:
This is the darkest time of the year and our faith is what gives us hope. When we live in a dark time, it’s the hope we look to and the celebration of light, the light of God in the world, that God can overcome darkness…is a major Christian theme throughout the Christmas season.
Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett, of Nashua’s Temple Beth Abraham, said Chanukah shares that theme, of light and that link to the solstice. But there’s also another reflection in the Talmud on the “Festival of Lights”:
[It's] the idea of Chanukah as a theme for Human initiative: a group of people in a dark time in their lives, in our case it was a religious persecution. They took matters into their own hands…(we’re) inspired by their hope and their story. And we wrestle with both things: what’s the role of receiving light and what’s the role of making light.
Steve Reno, former longtime professor of comparative religion, noted the universality of all these celebrations, Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Roman, and others. It’s all illustration of the fact, he said, that human beings need festivals! Reno quoted Plato, saying “the Gods took pity on mankind, born to work…and laid down a succession of recurring feasts, to restore them from their fatigue, so they could stand up again and work”.
Another shared aspect of Christmas and Chanukah: Both holidays have also evolved over time. For example, in Puritan New England, it was a crime to celebrate Christmas. And in the early 19th Century, many Jewish immigrants set aside Hannukah to embrace a secular Christmas as a way to assimilate in America.
All something to ponder, as you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, or the Solstice this year!