We have a big celebration here, a Vox article that manages to get something right. As its the holidays already, why not light the candles, sing carols and whatever the relevant Kwanzaa thing is – although for a white European male like me it’s probably cultural appropriation to even know. What they’ve got right is why is Hanukkah, traditionally an entirely minor event in the Jewish calendar, now such a big thing? For the same reason Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas. Also, for the same reason that Kwanzaa was invented entirely out of whole cloth very recently indeed – within my lifetime in fact. And if we ever get some new religion in any country or culture largely informed by Europeans there will be a new feast invented to occur at the same time of the year.
So, what Vox gets right:
Here is how not-important Hanukkah is, from a religious standpoint, to Judaism. During most religious holidays, observant Jews have to abide by the same rules they do on Shabbat (Saturdays): no work, restricted use of technology, etc. Those rules aren’t in play on Hanukkah. The only theological obligation on Hanukkah is lighting the candles on the menorah for each of the holiday’s eight nights — the centerpiece of the holiday. Everything else that is associated with Hanukkah has just sprung up as custom over the millennia. Why did Hanukkah become such a big deal for contemporary Jews? You likely know the answer to this one already: Christmas. Early American Jews almost certainly didn’t celebrate Hanukkah. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — as the first wave of American Jews began to settle in the US and aspire to the middle class — they began to make a big deal out of the holiday. Some scholars, like historian Dianne Ashton, argue it was a 19th-century attempt to get young people interested in synagogue (by bribing them with toys). Others think it was a more straightforward 20th-century response to the popularity of Christmas.
Quite so, if you’re sitting in the middle of a culture that has a religious holiday that sends all children into a frenzy, you’re not part of that dominant religion, then you’d better come up with something quick. Don’t and you’ll find your hold on the minds – thus future religion of – the children loosening. Thus Hanukkah’s elevation in the holiday, if not liturgical, calendar. Thus, also, obviously the invention of Kwanzaa by those who would very much prefer not to be part of that dominant culture but were rather geographically stuck with it.
But then that’s why Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas too. We have absolutely no evidence at all that he turned up even one winter night let alone on Dec 25. What the Catholic Church in Europe did have – and at the relevant time there really only was the Catholic Church – was this inconvenient fact of a massive winter feast, what we might call Yuletide. This was very definitely pre-Christian and was sorta determined by climate.
You’re in Europe, you’re doing subsistence or at least peasant farming, this means you’ve not got enough fodder to keep all the animals going until the spring. Thus you slaughter near all – pigs not so much as they eat scraps, can forage for themselves etc – except your breeding stock. This gives you lots and lots of fresh meat and few good methods of meat preservation. This is also the last fresh meat you’re going to get until those spring lambs are ready in, say, April. So, you gorge on all that fresh meat.
Also, it’s cold outside, the days are short, why the heck not stay in by the fire while you burp through it all? Hey, bring the family ’round! And Pops, didn’t you get that beer going earlier in the year? OK, no hops, so ale. But mead maybe. Wine in many areas would be just about drinkable by now from that autumn crop.
This had been going on perhaps 6,000 years by the time those Christians turned up. The Church really needed to impose its views and authority on all of this, seriously, we can’t have the peasants continuing to celebrate the Old Gods, can we? Thus the invention of Christmas, a time for celebration, that called for lots of feasting of a happy event just about the time when everyone would be feasting anyway.
This is also the explanation for Halloween, All Hallows Eve. Or, All Souls Day followed By All Saints Day to replace the Celtic Samhaim. Hell, the oiks are going to be celebrating anyway, better make it a Church celebration.
Thus Hanukkah, thus Kwanzaa and thus whatever the next religion will come up with assuming that it’s one that initially grows in a European influenced culture. Even, perhaps any Northern Hemisphere, or northerly part of it, influenced one. Islam’s going to have a problem as it uses the lunar calendar and so no fixed feast will work, it’ll precess though the calendar and miss the yearly meeting with midwinter.
Hanukkah’s a big thing for the same reason Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas. At which point you’re expecting me to say Happy Holidays, aren’t you? Bah, Humbug!