The following sermon was submitted by ULC minister Brian Stewart. All ULC Ministers are invited to contribute their own sermons for consideration/publication. To submit a sermon, please email it to email@example.com.
The holidays are upon us, and for those of us who are maybe a little older, this brings a familiar set of questions:
- "How did oil burning for eight days straight end up producing an iconic Adam Sandler SNL moment?"
- "Why does my next-door neighbor insist on calling his Christmas tree a "Hanukkah bush"?
- "How do I already have gray hair?"
The answer to number three is fairly simple, unfortunately. There is a God, and he is cruel and unjust. The other questions are the usual religious profundities – but I was really bothered by my neighbor's evasiveness concerning the name of his Christmas tree and where I could get one. Anyways, in my quest to figure out just what a Hanukkah bush was, I uncovered the true story of Hanukkah.
The Story of Hanukkah
Traditionally, Hanukkah is described as a Jewish holiday that celebrates an uprising in Jerusalem following the Seleucid Empire's desecration of the Jewish Temple. After the desecration, the Jews removed the Seleucid Empire's own religious altar and built a new altar. During this time, a miracle occurred. In the chaos of the temple being desecrated and retaken by the Jews, most of the oil had either been lost or seized.
Some oil was found, but it wasn't much – just enough to keep the menorah lit for one day. But this scanty amount of oil allowed the menorah to burn for a full eight days. On the eighth day, more oil was found, and the menorah remained lit.
If that version isn't captivating enough, let Adam Sandler sing to you about it:
The Historical Account
The story of Hanukkah as it is told within Jewish culture is a motivating force; it is understandably laudatory, and it has been specifically crafted to inspire believers to heroism. But like most religious accounts inspired by historical events, reality is more complicated. According to the First Maccabees, our historical account of Hanukkah, the original group of men who sacked the temple weren't men of the Seleucid Empire – they were Jews!
These Jews wanted to incorporate certain elements of Greek culture within their own Jewish culture, which was viewed as heretical by more traditional Jews. A conflict arose between the two groups, and the king of the Seleucid Empire eventually sided with the Jews who sought to include elements of Greek culture.
But it was the more traditional Jews who ultimately triumphed and helped canonize the events as the holiday of Hanukkah – in the process redefining the struggle as one of overcoming religious oppression. In turn, all questions (or quibbles) about the nature of religious fundamentalism were dismissed, and the holiday of Hanukkah was born.
Hanukkah in America
So at this point, I had two questions: if the story of Hanukkah is about religious freedom in the face of oppression, then why does it involve so much gift-giving? But more importantly, why does my neighbor always get so uncomfortable when I ask him about his Hanukkah bush?
As you might have already suspected, the celebration of Hanukkah, especially in the United States, has a lot to do with Christmas. While attributions of who and what exactly kicked off the "Americanization" of Hanukkah vary, the general impetus can be found in Judaism's status as a minority religion within the United States.
Adult Jews could readily appreciate the alienating effects of their minority status; each winter promised the same disquieting revelations for their children. Rather than stand by, adult Jews adopted Christmas activities – like caroling and gift-giving – that allowed their children to participate in the holiday spirit without sacrificing their distinctive cultural identity as Jews.
Thus, the Hanukkah bush emerged as a natural alternative to a Christmas tree, allowing children to decorate something without forsaking Jewish tradition.
Our Perspective Today
Today, the line between Hanukkah, Christmas, and the current consumerist craze that threatens to engulf more of our calendar year continues to blur. And if you tour the United States, you can find ample evidence of the cultural adaptation that continues to occur.
In Louisiana, you might find homes decorated with menorahs made of grits. In Texas, latkes are peppered with cayenne and cilantro. And in a little apartment in Seattle, you might just find a twenty-something-year old man with a Hanukkah Bush. Just don't tell his parents!