Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Why Chanukah won the popularity contest

What about Chanukah makes it so popular a Jewish holiday?

On a scale of 1 to 10 on the list of festivals, after all, Chanukah, a “minor” festival, probably should be a 1. Yet Chanukah may even top Pesach on the popularity scale. Most Jews observe it for the entire eight days (and let us not forget the endless series of presents), whereas only the Pesach seder on the first night outstrips it as an observance.

One possible reason is timing. The month of Kislev falls in mid-to-late November and runs into December on the secular calendar. (In 2016, it will begin on December 1, which means the first day of Chanukah, Kislev 25, will fall on—oh, figure that one out for yourself.) In other words, Chanukah occurs when the nights are the longest, meaning during the winter solstice.

A “festival of lights” is a perfect counter to “days of darkness,” which is why winter solstice festivals were commonplace in the ancient world. In ancient Greece, for example, this was the time for a festival to Dionysius, the deity Greeks believed ruled over all things wine-related. The Romans marked December 25 as the birthday of the sun. This observance may have been the reason it was co-opted by early Christian leaders, according to a medieval manuscript.

“It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity,” the Christian document states. “In these solemnities and revelries, the Christians also took part.” For that reason, the document continues, early Christian leaders chose the date for their nativity festival, probably in the fourth century

Neither the winter solstice nor its pagan observances played a role in the choice of Kislev 25 for Chanukah. The start of the festival was based on a historical fact — the rededication of the Temple on Kislev 25, 3586, following the defeat of the Seleucid army. The date reportedly was chosen because it was the third anniversary of the day Antiochus IV Epiphanes ordered the Temple altar to be defiled.

The solstice, then, was not the reason for Chanukah, but the festival’s eventual emphasis on lights may be one reason it caught on.

This brings us to the second possible reason for Chanukah’s popularity — light as symbol. Chanukah may have become popular because it marked the victory of a Jewish army over an oppressive foreign occupier. In the darkest of days of the year, Jews had cause to celebrate their emergence from yet another dark period in their history.

This also may explain why Chanukah remained popular from then on. It is one thing to celebrate a miraculous deliverance from Egypt; it is quite another for an oppressed people to celebrate a time when they broke the yoke of oppression seemingly by their own hand (which also would explain the popularity of Purim).

Light enters the observance in a figurative sense, as is noted in Josephus’ Antiquities (see at 12.7.6-7).

“Indeed,” wrote the historian Josephus of the victorious Judeans, “they were so very glad at the revival of their customs and, after so long a time, having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this, which we call the Festival of Lights because, I imagine, beyond our hopes this right was brought to light, and so this name was placed on the festival.”

Support for light being used in the figurative sense may be found in this fact: Neither Josephus nor anyone before him mentions the actual lighting of anything as part of the observance. The earliest mentions of actual lights come in post-Josephus rabbinic literature.

Josephus, in using the words “I imagine,” also seems to suggest that the reason it was called the Festival of Lights was forgotten by then. This is another possible indication that actual lights were not involved. Think about it: So extraordinary an event as the “miracle of the oil” would not have gone unremarked in contemporaneous texts, yet it is nowhere to be found in the First Book of Maccabees or anywhere else. Thus, it is unlikely that it or anything like it was attached to Chanukah in pre-rabbinic times. Therefore, there would seem to be no reason for any kind of lamp-lighting ritual back then.

Originally, of course, Chanukah was a festival honoring the rededication of the altar (chanukat ha-mizbe-ach), or more accurately the dedication of the new altar that the Hasmonean leader Judah Maccabee had ordered built to replace the one defiled three years earlier. That Josephus did not use the name Chanukah may suggest it was not the popular one in his day, if it existed at all; it is, however, the term used in the rabbinic literature that came after him.

We are not the oppressed Jews of old, however. Our story has evolved. Most Jews no longer live under oppression. More to the point, we take the existence of a standing Jewish army in a reborn Jewish state for granted, as well as its track record of vanquishing those who would harm Jews. As for the solstice, technology, too, has evolved. Electricity ameliorates the effects of the darkness. Yet, while the probable reasons for its popularity are no more, Chanukah may be more popular now than ever.

Unfortunately, Christmas likely has a lot to do with that because it coincides with Chanukah. The Christian holiday is celebrated with bright lights and expensive gifts, giving it a façade of attractiveness unlike any of our holidays. Chanukah affords Jews the opportunity to adapt that façade to a proximate Jewish observance. The association is made even stronger by the insistence of some that huge chanukiot be erected in public spaces.

Whatever your reason is for celebrating Chanukah, may this year’s observance be a joyous one.


About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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