Christmas in Italy
One of the most important ways of celebrating Christmas in Italy is the Nativity crib scene. Using a crib to help tell the Christmas story was made very popular by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 (Assisi is in mid-Italy). The previous year he had visited Bethlehem and saw where it was thought that Jesus was born. A lot of Italian families have a Nativity crib in their homes.
The city of Naples in Italy is world famous for its cribs and crib making. These are known as ‘Presepe Napoletano’ (meaning Neapolitan Cribs). The first crib scene in Naples is thought to go back to 1025 and was in the Church of S. Maria del presepe (Saint Mary of the Crib), this was even before St. Francis of Assisi had made cribs very popular!
Having cribs in your own home became popular in the 16th century and it’s still popular today (before that only churches and monasteries had cribs). Cribs are traditionally put out on the 8th December. But the figure of the baby Jesus isn’t put into the crib until the evening/night of December 24th!
Sometimes the Nativity scene is displayed in the shape of pyramid which can be meters tall! It’s made of several tiers of shelves and is decorated with colored paper, gold covered pinecones and small candles. A small star is often hung inside the top of the pyramid/triangle. The shelves above the manger scene might also contain fruit, candy and presents.
One special thing about Neapolitan cribs, is that they always have extra ‘every day’ people and objects (such as houses, waterfalls, food, animals and even figures of famous people and politicians!). Naples is also the home to the largest crib scene in the world, which has over 600 objects on it!
In Naples there is a still a street of nativity scene makers called the ‘Via San Gregorio Armeno’. In the street you can buy wonderful hand made crib decorations and figures – and of course whole cribs!
You can see some pictures of crib scenes and figures from Naples on this page: www.foto.portanapoli.com/presepe.html
One old Italian custom is that children go out Carol singing and playing songs on shepherds pipes, wearing shepherds sandals and hats.
On Christmas Eve, it’s common that no meat (and also sometimes no dairy) is eaten. Often a light seafood meal is eaten and then people go to the Midnight Mass service. The types of fish and how they are served vary between different regions in Italy.
When people return from Mass, if it’s cold, you might have a slice of Italian Christmas Cake called ‘Panettone’ which is like a dry fruity sponge cake and a cup of hot chocolate! Here’s a recipe for panettone. You can find out more about Christmas in Italy and Italian Christmas Recipes on this site.
For many Italian-American families a big Christmas Eve meal of different fish dishes is now a very popular tradition! It’s known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes (‘Esta dei Sette Pesci’ in Italian). The feast seems to have its root in southern Italy and was bought over to the USA by Italian immigrants in the 1800s. It now seems more popular in American than it is in Italy!
Common types of fish eaten in the feast include Baccala (salted Cod), Clams, Calamari, Sardines and Eel.
There are different theories as to why there are seven fish dishes eaten. Some think that seven represents the seven days of creation in the Bible, other say it represents the seven holy sacraments of the Catholic Church. But some families have more than seven dishes! You might have nine (to represent the Christian trinity times three), 13 (to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples) or 11 (for the 11 disciples without Jesus or Judas!)!
The Christmas celebrations start eight days before Christmas with special ‘Novenas’ or a series of prayers and church services.
Some families have a ‘Ceppo’ or Yule Log which is burnt through the Christmas season.
In Italian Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Buon Natale’, in Sicilian it’s ‘Bon Natali’ and in Ladin (spoken in some parts of the northern Italian region of South Tyrol) it’s ‘Bon/Bun Nadèl’. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages.
Epiphany is also important in Italy. On Epiphany night, children believe that an old lady called ‘Befana’ brings presents for them. The story about Befana bringing presents is very similar to the story of Babushka. Children put stockings up by the fireplace for Befana to fill. In parts of northern Italy, the Three Kings might bring you present rather than Befana. On Christmas day ‘Babbo Natale’ (Santa Claus) might bring them some small gifts, but the main day for present giving is on Epiphany.
Christmas in Greece
On Christmas Eve, children, especially boys, often go out singing ‘kalanda’ (carols) in the streets. They play drums and triangles as they sing. Sometimes they will also carry model boats decorated with nuts which are painted gold. Carrying a boat is a very old custom in the Greek Islands.
If the children sing well, they might be given money, as well things to eat like nuts, sweets and dried figs.
An old and very traditional decoration is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim. A sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross and hangs from the wire. Some water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day someone, usually the mother of the family, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house.
This is believed to keep the ‘kallikantzaroi’ Καλλικάντζαρος (bad spirits) away. The kallikantzaroi are meant to appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to Epiphany (January 6th). They are supposed to come from the middle of the earth and get into people’s house through the chimney! The kallikantzaroi do things like putting out fires and making milk go off. Having a fire burning through the twelve days of Christmas is also meant to keep the kallikantzaroi away (burning old shoes is meant to be a very good way of scaring off the kallikantzaroi).
Every December, in Aristotelous Square in the city of Thessaloniki (which is the second biggest city Greece) a huge Christmas Tree and three masted sailing ship are put up. It’s a popular tourist attraction. There are also large boat displays in other large Greek cities like Athens. Decorated ships are an old tradition in Greece where small ships were put up in homes when sailors had returned from sea voyages.
Christmas Trees are popular in Greece. The first known Christmas tree in Greece was in 1833 and was set-up by King Otto next to a large decorated boat. Over time, especially in the late 20th century, decorated Christmas trees became more popular than decorating a boat. But now having a boat as well as a tree is becoming more popular!
Christmas in Germany
A big part of the Christmas celebrations in Germany is Advent. Several different types of Advent calendars are used in German homes. As well as the traditional one made of card that are used in many countries, there are ones made out of a wreath of Fir tree branches with 24 decorated boxes or bags hanging from it. Each box or bag has a little present in it. Another type is called a ‘Advent Kranz’ and is a ring of fir branches that has four candles on it. This is like the Advent candles that are sometimes used in Churches. One candle is lit at the beginning of each week in Advent.
Christmas Trees are very important in Germany. They were first used in Germany during the late Middle Ages. If there are young children in the house, the trees are usually secretly decorated by the mother of the family. The Christmas tree was traditionally brought into the house on Christmas Eve. In some parts of Germany, during the evening, the family would read the Bible and sing Christmas songs such as O Tannenbaum, Ihr Kinderlein Kommet and Stille Nacht (Slient Night).
Sometimes wooden frames, covered with colored plastic sheets and with electric candles inside, are put in windows to make the house look pretty from the outside.
Christmas Eve is the main day when Germans exchange presents with their families.
In German Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Frohe Weihnachten’. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages.
Christmas Day is called “Erste Feiertag” (‘first celebration’) and the 26th December is known as “Zweite Feiertag” (‘second celebration’) and also “Zweiter Weihnachtsfeiertag” which translates as Boxing Day (although it doesn’t literally mean that)!
Germany is well known for its Christmas Markets where all sorts of Christmas foods and decorations are sold. Perhaps the most famous German decorations are glass ornaments. The glass ornaments were originally hand blown glass and were imported in the USA in 1880s by the Woolworth stores. The legend of the glass ‘Christmas Pickle‘ is famous in the USA, but it’s that, a legend. Most people in Germany have never heard of the Christmas Pickle!
In some parts of Germany, mainly the south east of the country, children write to the ‘das Christkind/Christkindl’ asking for presents. The letters to the Christkind are decorated with sugar glued to the envelope to make them sparkly and attractive to look at. Children leave the letters on the windowsill at the beginning of or during Advent.
‘das Christkind’ translates as ‘The Christ Child’ in English but Germans don’t think of the Christkind as the baby Jesus! The Christkind is often described as a young girl with ‘Christ like’ qualities. In Nürnberg a young girl is chosen every year to participate in a parade as the Christkind. She wears a long white and gold dress, has long blond curly hair and wears a gold crown and sometimes wings like an angel. This is similar to St Lucia is Sweden. (And it can seem a bit confusing calling the ‘Christ Child’, Jesus, a girl!)
The Nürnberg Christkind officially opens the Christmas market on the Friday before Advent starts. And before Christmas she has over 150 ‘official duties’ including visiting hospitals, old people’s homes and children’s nurseries! She also has to give TV interviews and visit other cities.
Santa Claus or Father Christmas (der Weihnachtsmann) brings the main Christmas presents on December 24th. You might also write a letter to Weihnachtsmann in other parts of Germany. Some people say that Santa/Father Christmas (Weihnachtsmann) brings the presents and some say it is Christkind!
As well as hoping for presents from Christkind or der Weihnachtsmann, some children also hope that ‘der Nikolaus’ will bring you some small gifts, such as sweets and chocolate on the 6th December (St Nicholas’s Day). He comes in the night between the 5th and the 6th and puts the presents into the shoes of children, who usually place them by their doors. He might also knock on the door and the children will have to sing a song, play a song on an instrument or tell a story to St Nicholas before he gives them their presents.
In some regions of Germany, there is a character called “Knecht Ruprecht” or “Krampus” who accompanies Nikolaus (St. Nicholas) on the 6th of December. He is big horned monster clothed in rags and carries chains. He is meant to punish the children who have been bad! He is usually the one who scares the little children. In other parts of Germany, St. Nicholas is followed by a small person called “Schwarzer Peter” (Black Peter) who carries a small whip. Black Peter also accompanies St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas in The Netherlands. In north west Germany Santa is joined by Belsnickel a man dressed all in fur. Although ‘der Nikolaus’ visits in December, he’s not officially part of Christmas!
At small work places and school parties, secret presents are often exchanged. A door is opened just wide enough for small presents to be thrown into the room. The presents are then passed around among the people until each person has the correct present! It is thought to be bad luck to find out who sent each present.
Another tradition is the Sternsinger (or star singers) who go from house to house, sing a song and collect money for charity (this is a predominantly Catholic tradition). The singers are normally four children, three who dress up like the Wise men and one carries a star on a stick as a symbol for the Star of Bethlehem. When they’re finished singing, they write a signature with chalk over the door of the house. The sign is written in a special way, so 2019 would be: 20*C*M*B*19. It is considered to be bad luck to wash the sign away – it has to fade by itself. It has usually faded by the 6th of January (Epiphany). The Sternsingers visit houses between December 27th and January 6th.
Christmas in Mexico
In Mexico, Christmas is celebrated from December 12th to January 6th.
From December 16th to Christmas Eve, children often perform the ‘Posada’ processions or Posadas. Posada is Spanish for Inn or Lodging. There are nine Posadas. These celebrate the part of the Christmas story where Joseph and Mary looked for somewhere to stay. For the Posadas, the outside of houses are decorated with evergreens, moss and paper lanterns.
In each Posada, children are given candles and a board, with painted clay figures of Mary riding on a donkey and Joseph, to process round the streets with. They call at the houses of friends and neighbors and sing a song at each home. The song they sing is about Joseph and Mary asking for a room in the house. But the children are told that there is no room in the house and that they must go away. Eventually they are told there is room and are welcomed in! When the children go into the house they say prayers of thanks and then they have a party with food, games and fireworks.
Each night a different house holds the Posada party. At the final Posada, on Christmas Eve, a manger and figures of shepherds are put on to the board. When the Posada house has been found, a baby Jesus is put into the manger and then families go to a midnight Church service. After the Church service there are more fireworks to celebrate the start of Christmas.
One game that is often played at Posada parties is piñata. A piñata is a decorated clay or papier-mâché jar filled with sweets and hung from the ceiling or tree branch. The piñata is often decorated something like a ball with seven peaks around it. The peaks or spikes represent the ‘seven deadly sins’. Piñata’s can also be in the form of an animal or bird (such as a donkey). To play the game, children are blind-folded and take it in turns to hit the piñata with a stick until it splits open and the sweets pour out. Then the children rush to pick up as many sweets as they can!
As well as the posada’s, there is another type of Christmas play known as Pastorelas (The Shepherds). These tell the story of the shepherds going to find the baby Jesus and are often very funny. The devil tries to stop the shepherds by tempting them along the way. But the shepherds always get there in the end, often with the help of the Archangel Michael, who comes and beats the devil!
Nativity scenes, known as the ‘nacimiento’, are very popular in Mexico. They are often very large, with the figures being life size! Sometimes a whole room in a house is used for the nacimiento, although this is less common now. The figures are often made of clay and are traditionally passed down through families. As well as the normal figures of the Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Shepherds and Three Kings, there are often lots of other figures of different people, including women making tortillas, people selling food and different animals and birds, like flamingos! The figures can be bought from markets in cities all over Mexico. The baby Jesus is normally added to the scene during the evening of Christmas Eve. The Three Kings are added at Epiphany.
Christmas Trees are becoming more popular in Mexico, but the main/most important decoration is still the nacimiento.
Christmas Eve is known as ‘Noche Buena’ and is a family day. People often take part in the final Posada and then in the evening have the main Christmas meal. Popular dishes for the main Christmas meal include Pozole (a thick soup made with hominy, chicken or pork and chilies with is topped with greens), roast turkey, roast pork, tamales, bacalao (salt cod), romeritos (a green vegetable that’s cooked in a mole sauce with potatoes and shrimps) and there are normally salads served as side dishes such as Ensalada Nochebuena (Christmas Eve salad). For dessert bunuelos are very popular, they are fried pastries sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon or a hot sugar syrup. Bunuelos come in two shapes flat and round/ball! To drink there might be Ponche (a warm Christmas punch made with fruit) and Rompope (a drink like egg nog which often has rum added to it!).
At midnight, many people go to a Midnight Mass service, known as the ‘Misa de Gallo’ (which means Mass of the Rooster as people are up early like Roosters!). There are lots of fireworks to celebrate Christmas Day.
Poinsettia flowers are known as ‘nochebuena’ (Christmas Eve) flowers in Mexico.
People in Mexico also celebrate ‘los santos inocentes’ or ‘Day of the Innocent Saints’ on December 28th and it’s very like April Fools Day in the UK and USA. 28th December is when people remember the babies that were killed on the orders of King Herod when he was trying to kill the baby Jesus.
In some states in Mexico children expect Santa Claus to come on December 24th. In the south of Mexico children expect presents on January 6th at Epiphany, which is known as ‘el Dia de los Reyes’.
On el Dia de los Reyes the presents are left by the Three Kings (or Magi). If you’ve had a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve, you might also get some candy on el Dia de los Reyes!
It’s traditional to eat a special cake called ‘Rosca de Reyes’ (Three Kings Cake) on Epiphany. A figure of Baby Jesus is hidden inside the cake. Whoever has the baby Jesus in their piece of cake is the ‘Godparent’ of Jesus for that year.
Another important day, is La Candelaria ‘the Candles’ or Virgen de la Candelaria ‘Virgin of Lights or Candles’ (this is also known as Candlemas in other countries around the world) on the 2nd February and it marks the end of the Mexican Christmas celebrations. Lots of Mexicans have a party for Candelaria.
In Mexico, presents might also be brought by ‘El Niñito Dios’ (baby Jesus) & Santo Clós (Santa Claus)
In Mexico most people speak Spanish (Español), so Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Feliz Navidad’. In the Nahuatl (spoken in some parts of central Mexico) it’s ‘Cualli netlācatilizpan’ and in the Yucatec Maya language (spoken in some parts of the Yucatán Peninsula) it’s ‘Ki’imak “navidad”‘. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages.
The largest ever Angel Ornament was made in Mexico. It was made in January 2001 by Sergio Rodriguez in the town of Nuevo León. The angel was 18′ 3″” high and had wing span of 11′ 9″! Perhaps the most amazing thing about the angel was that it was completely made out of old beer bottles, 2946 of them!
Many American Christmas traditions trace back to England, like the main staples of decorating your home, putting up a tree, exchanging presents and having a mid-day dinner. Why not British it up a bit more this year?
It is very common for school age children to write letters to Santa Claus. But, the Brits take it a step further and burn the letters in the fireplace so the ashes fly up the chimney and Father Christmas can read the smoke. If, like many, you don’t have a fireplace/chimney … surely you can find alternative means. Just be safe!
Rather than hanging stockings above the fireplace, British children hang them at the end of their bed hoping they will be filled by Christmas morning. That would be a nice surprise to wake up to. At the same time it might be difficult for “Santa” to fill without waking the wee ones.
The cracker is a paper tube, covered in foil, twisted at both ends. It’s shaped like a large sweet with hidden treasures inside. Each person crosses their arms, using their right hand to hold their cracker, and pulling their neighbor’s cracker with their left. POP! The cracker will make a bit of a bang with the contents spilling out which usually is a joke to be read at the dinner table, a small trinket and a paper crown.
Everyone is a king on Christmas! The paper crowns are made of tissue paper and unfold into an actual crown. Adults and children alike don the crown making it a colorful sight. The paper hat was added to the crackers in the early 1900s and the tradition has carried on.
5. Mid-Day Dinner
Christmas dinner is similar to that of the U.S. with a roast turkey, goose or chicken and trimmings. But, there are some specialty items that aren’t as common such as parsnips which are a root vegetable similar to a carrot. It’s a familiar taste but it’s fun to incorporate a new veggie to the table. Brits love their pudding but Yorkshire Pudding isn’t pudding-pudding like you would think. It’s more like a flakey, deflated biscuit with the center just waiting to hold your gravy. Does a trifle sound familiar? Oh boy, Rachel on Friends tried to make a traditional English trifle but the recipe pages stuck together and she mixed together a trifle with sheperd’s pie. It is indeed a layered cake but strictly no beef.
Wassa-what? Wassail literally means “good health” or to “be healthy” and in this case is a hot, mulled drink. There are different ways to serve it like a hot cider but it may also be made with a base of wine. It was originally topped with slices of toast as sops (piece of bread to soak up the liquid.) Mmm, wonder why wine drenched bread went out of style? Well, Brits may question Americans’ craving for eggnog over the holidays.
7. Royal Christmas Message
The tradition of sending out a Christmas Message to the public began in 1932 with George V. Current day the Queen gives a speech on Christmas Day at 3pm in England. You can gather around the tele with your loved ones and watch it on BBC America … that’s about prime Christmas present opening time on this end with the time difference. BBCA will air it later in the day to allow family time. Check your listings for exact times as the day approaches.
Christmas tea usually rolls around 6pm and it is round two of a sit down with family and treats. Pretty much, any proper English event involves tea. Mince pies or sausage rolls might accompany the tea party. Rather than breaking out the Lipton, which would be spat at by any visiting Brit, we suggest PG Tips that originated in the UK in the 1930s. If you can’t find them at a local shop you can do a quickie order from Amazon.com.
9. Boxing Day
Boxing Day follows Christmas day and is a nationally recognized holiday in the UK, also called a bank holiday. It was originally the day for servants and tradesman to receive presents from their employers but it’s now basically a big shopping day for Brits. It’s similar to Black Friday in the U.S. Your boss may wonder why you didn’t go into the office as it’s not an official holiday in the U.S. Maybe celebrate this one after work and get your shop on?
10. Next Year
Brits say you need to take your tree and decorations down within 12 days of Christmas or you’ll have bad luck for the next year. Don’t be that house on the street with blinking lights that go on through Valentine’s Day! Get that stuff down and get on with the New Year!
Another perspective on the holiday seasons this time of year….
The Miracle of Chanukah
Chanukah was a miraculous military victory, but a tiny cruse of oil proved more miraculous and enduring in the memory of the Jewish people.
In the wake of Alexander’s appearance in and departure from Jerusalem, relations between Jews and Greeks were so good that an exchange of cultures took place. Each influenced the other. For the Jewish minority, however, what began as a small undertow of assimilation — such as giving children Greek names and speaking the Greek language — became a surprisingly powerful, high-speed rip current threatening to drag the caught-off-guard Jews out to the sea of complete assimilation.
Jews who embraced Greek culture at the expense of Judaism became known as Misyavnim, or Hellenists. Estimates are that a third or more of the Jewish population was Hellenist, including those who reversed their circumcision, ate pork, bowed to idols and even became self-hating enough to side with the enemies of Israel. Hellenism threatened to annihilate the Jewish world through assimilation in ways tyrants tried but could not do by force.
Had the situation continued as it was, the Greeks would perhaps have won the battle by default. However, they overstepped themselves.
Here Come the Greeks
At the beginning of the year 190 BCE, the situation between the two great post-Alexandrian empires, the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic, deteriorated badly. The Seleucids mounted an invasion that took their army through the Land of Israel, which was sandwiched in-between.
Whenever a foreign army comes into a country it changes the view of the populace. Instead of an attractive culture, the Greeks were now an occupying enemy. Instead of something to be imitated, now they became something to be resisted.
The Jewish people are very stubborn. The same person who is so stubborn that he will not observe the Torah in freedom will observe it with passion if forbidden from observing it. He becomes stubborn the other way.
A good case could be made that if the Communists in Russia would have left the Jews alone they would have completely assimilated. However, once told that they could not be Jewish a certain percentage of Jews decided to be Jewish at great risk. That happened with the Greeks as well.
Progressively More Intolerable Laws
The Greek army exerted a very heavy hand against the Jews. First, they forced Jews to finance their war through collection of taxes. Then they forced them to quarter their soldiers in Jewish homes. Finally, the Greeks were determined to crush the Jewish religion.
First, they took the statue of Zeus and mounted it in the courtyard of the Temple. Next, the Greeks banned the observance of the Sabbath on the pain of death. Then, the Talmud (Kesubos 3b) records, there was a period of time which lasted a number of decades when the Greek officer in town had the right to “live” with a woman on her wedding night before her husband-to-be.
The Greeks also banned circumcision. Whoever circumcised his child was put to death; both child and father were killed. Then the Greeks demanded that altars to the Greek idols be established and that sacrifices be offered on a regular basis in every Jewish town. Finally, the Jewish educational system was entirely interrupted.
The Jews Rebel
About the year 166 BCE, a group finally stood up to the Greeks: Matisyahu (Mattathias) and his family, known as the Hasmoneans. We do not know much about them except that they were of noble descent from the priestly class (Kohanim), including those who had served as High Priests.
They lived in a small town called Modin, which was about 12 miles northwest from Jerusalem. (The town exists today, and is about 20 miles west of modern Jerusalem.) One day, a Greek contingent marched in, set up an altar, gathered all the Jews and forced them to sacrifice a pig to Zeus.
They then asked for a Jewish volunteer to perform the sacrifice. One stepped forward. As he approached the altar Matisyahu stabbed him to death.
Chaos broke out. The Greek army attempted to subdue the crowd, but the Jews were armed and slaughtered the entire Greek patrol. There was no turning back now.
Matisyahu had five sons, all of whom were people of great organizational leadership as well as pious, committed Jews: Johanan (Yochanan), Simon (Shimon), Jonathan (Yonason), Judah (Yehudah) and Eleazar.
They ran to the caves and organized an army – not to fight an open war, but a guerilla war. Originally they organized of force of about 3,000 men. Eventually it grew to 6,000 and never reached more than 12,000 men.
The General of the Army was the great Judah, known to the world as Judah the Maccabee (or Judas Maccabaeus as he was called in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost). “Maccabaeus” is the Greek word for hammer, but the Jews took it, as Jews are wont to do, and made it Jewish by declaring that “Maccabee” stood for the first four letters in Exodus 15:11, meaning, “Who is like You, God?” — which was said by Moses and the people after the miraculous drowning of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds.
An enormous Syrian-Greek army, numbering almost 50,000 men, marched into Judea. Judah the Maccabee marshaled his forces and with guile and courage outmaneuvered the far larger Greek army, forced it to divide and then destroyed its various components, killing many thousands and forcing the survivors to flee north to Syria.
It took many years, but their hit-and-run tactics wore down three great Greek armies. However, the Jews paid a very heavy price in terms of blood. Matisyahu died in the early going. Judah Maccabee was killed in the third great battle. Eleazar died while attacking an elephant. Johanan and Jonathan were killed as well. The only Maccabee brother who survived was Simon.
The last famous battle was for the fortress of Antonius, which guarded the Temple. When Antonius fell, the Jews came back to the Temple. They shattered the statue of Zeus and cleaned the Temple to the extent that they could. Any priests who worked for the Greeks were sent away or executed.
They only found one small flask of uncontaminated oil with the seal of the High Priest. By Torah law, the flame of the Menorah (Candelabrum) in the Temple could only be lit with specially prepared pure olive oil. The amount of oil remaining in the one uncontaminated flask was only enough to burn for one day, and it would take eight days to produce a new batch of pure oil.
What could they do?
They lit it — and it miraculously burned for eight days. That is why Chanukah lasts eight nights (the festival was established a year later by the Rabbis).
What is Chanukah?
The Talmud does not say much about Chanukah. There are perhaps forty lines spread out in different volumes, whereas almost all the other holidays have an entire Talmudic volume about them. In addition, the few words the Talmud has to say about Chanukah are cryptic. Perhaps that is why Chanukah has been subject to reinterpretation, as it has been in our time. People make whatever they want to make out of it. However, that is a mistake, a tragedy.
In the Western world, it has the misfortune of falling out in December. Therefore, in the homes of many Jewish people it has sadly became the Jewish version of the December holidays, a mixture of commercialism and non-Jewish traditions and ideas.
What is Chanukah?
What the Talmud does say is that the important thing is to “advertise the miracle.” People have to recognize that a miracle took place. It is vital to keep the wonder in Chanukah. That is why the rabbis gave more emphasis to the miracle of the lights than the military victory.
Wars come and go. Even the glow of miraculous victory can fade. Young people today do not think that Israel’s War for Independence in 1948 was such a miracle. In 1967, Jews expected a second Holocaust. Now people brush the miraculous Six Day War off as nothing special.
History provides numerous examples of outnumbered forces defeating a superpower using guerilla tactics. Was the Maccabean victory so miraculous? That was the question Jews at the time must have asked themselves.
However, when the small flask of pure oil that could only last one day lasted eight days it proved that there was a miracle that happened there. The little flask of oil shed light on the big military campaign. “Not by the army, not by power, but through My Spirit, says God” (Zechariah 4:6). Chanukah is about the little light that sheds a great light.
There is an indefinable, spiritual, electric charge that binds the generations together that cannot be found in any book. It can only be had when parents and grandparents do things like sitting together with their children around the Chanukah lights celebrating, discussing and advertising the miracle; experientially getting in touch with the wonder of the past, the wonder of the present, the wonder of life.
What Ever Happened to the Hellenists?
Chanukah is a very popular, emotional and beautiful holiday. However, the necessity for Chanukah begins with the story of the invasion of Greek culture and the weakness of the Jews in responding to it. It originates from the growth of an enormous sect of Hellenists within the Jews, who even supported the Greeks during the war.
What happened to the Hellenists? Their influence all but collapsed in the wake of the defeat. They would never return again as Hellenists, because the war brought out their true colors as traitors and they lost whatever appeal they could have had to the Jewish people.
Most of them retreated to the city of Caesarea, which remained a Greek city (and later would become a Roman city). They were just not part of the Jewish people any longer.
Their demise punctuated the fact that more than a military victory, the miracle of the oil signified that Chanukah was a victory of the spirit of the Jewish people, a victory that granted them the right to observe the Torah. That is why its memory and the people who observe it have endured.