It may be a fluke of the Gregorian and lunar calendars. Or consider it a miracle of timing. Maybe it’s just a rare coincidence. But for only the fifth time in the past 100 years, the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve are on the same day. The phenomenon has given rise to the portmanteau Chrismukkah. The word was first concocted in the early 2000s on a television show called “The O.C.,” in which a character used the term to encapsulate his interfaith heritage. If we move beyond the clunkiness of the word itself, Chrismukkah has the potential to launch some meaningful interfaith discussions.
Maybe that’s the underrated miracle of Hanukkah—a holiday that extends hope and wonder and understanding beyond the long, dark winter season. There’s a beautiful biblical commentary traditionally called midrash, about the first man Adam’s confusion and fear when he initially experienced the descending darkness of winter days. As he observed the days becoming shorter and the world growing darker a little earlier each day, he was sure God was punishing him for his sins.
Adam thought the world was reverting back to the original chaos of creation. In response to this terrifying reversal of fortune, he fasted and prayed for the return of light. When the winter solstice arrived, he gradually understood that cycles of lightness and darkness were not only crucial to understanding the world around him, but the driving force of life’s rhythms.
Consider the contrast between Adam’s asceticism and the glittery Hanukkah we’re expected to celebrate. What was once a minor Jewish holiday is now in competition with the most dazzling of Christian holidays. I worry that Hanukkah observance is trying a little too hard to keep up with Christmas festivities. But there’s also something a little thrilling about celebrating Hanukkah when the rest of the world has gone on lockdown for Christmas. Although many of us will light candles, exchange gifts and then go out for the traditional fare of Chinese food, this year Christmas Eve will be illuminated by a menorah.
Not to upset this delicate negotiation of acknowledging Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas, but there’s some question about the actual timing of the Festival of Lights. According to Talmudic sources, the original Hanukkah events likely took place during the fall harvest festival of Sukkot. When the victorious Judah Maccabee and his ragtag army finally emerged from the hills, one of the first things they did was purify the Second Temple and rededicate it. Their ceremonies, which took place over the course of eight days, involved carrying palm branches and singing psalms of praise. There’s a description of this event in the second of four Books of the Maccabees with no mention of light. That famous story about a day’s supply of oil lasting eight days to enable the eternal light to shine without interruption didn’t come up in Talmudic discussions until centuries later.
There is another inspiring midrash about Adam and light. At the end of his life, Adam could see past the generations of Noah and Sinai and straight to the future generations of the Jewish people. His clairvoyance to see beyond his present world caused him both joy and distress. Maybe that’s the perfect metaphor for Hanukkah—the light of the holiday gives off a glow that illuminates the blessings in our lives, as well as a light that exposes how much we still have to do to repair the world. It may be that the melding of Hanukkah and Christmas into Chrismukkah is the perfect opportunity to join forces in healing our divided country and our ailing planet.