For many in America, Hanukkah has become the “Jewish Christmas.” This is true among both more liberal Christians and Jews, as well as secularists, all of whom focus on the cultural and commercial aspects of both Hanukkah and Christmas.  All of them miss the spiritual meanings behind each of these seasonal holidays.  But, Hanukkah has its own unique message that deserves to be celebrated by all, Jew and non-Jew alike.  For Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom, the right of individual belief as opposed to mandated conformity.

Historically, Hanukkah is the first rebellion by a religious minority.  As told in the Book of Maccabees, it began when one man, Mattathias, stood up for his beliefs at the risk of losing his own life.  He and his family escaped into the hills and were soon joined by many others in open rebellion against the harsh rule of King Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek ruler who had recently conquered the Jewish homeland.  In added insult to their belief in an invisible god, Antiochus had even added the descriptive Epiphanes, the “visible god” to his title.

These rebels became known as the Maccabees, or hammers, in reference to their hit and run guerrilla tactics.  Those that couldn’t fight protested in other ways, as illustrated by the story of Hannah and her seven sons, who forfeit their lives to stay true to their beliefs.  We are told that in the third year of fighting, a small band of these Maccabees defeated the much larger army of King Antiochus.  This allowed them to liberate the holy temple in Jerusalem and rededicate it to worship according to the Jewish faith.  It would take twenty years of fighting for them to achieve independence for the rest of the country.

It is ironic then that Hanukkah is thought of as the “Jewish Christmas” in the West, as it is not about conforming, but celebrating religious diversity and freedom of belief.  This is the true meaning that should be celebrated and shared with others.  Gifts and a “little jar of oil” are just details of a much larger story.

Sam Griswold is the author of the new historical thriller, True Identity, about an Israeli Mossad agent who loses his memory while working undercover in Iraqi Kurdistan.  He also blogs at JewishPrism.com.