Anyone who does a little background on (C)hanuk(k)ah knows that it started out as a celebration of Jewish defiance in the face of a powerful majority bent on assimilation.
It commemorates the end of a blood-soaked occupation and civil war, for crying out loud. Even the darling little dreidel has its origins in religious oppression:
The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus’ oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.
Here’s a take by the wonderful crew behind the G-dcast:
Stubborn Jews fighting against the seemingly inevitable and invincible. Isn’t that what Chanukkah is about?
Fast forward two centuries, after both the Temple and any hope of a sovereign Jewish state were smashed to pieces. The last thing the rabbis wanted was for Jews, now living as a scattered, vulnerable minority, to get any ideas about taking up arms.
So they nudged the holiday into more a more apolitical space, making it a festival of light and deep-fried food. This business of giving gifts on each of the eight nights is an assimilatory gesture, something to avoid or ease a sense of deprivation among children in Christmas-observing lands.
What if we could bring one of the rabbis back, Rabbi Shimon for instance, and show him what Hanukkah in America looks like? I think he would be appalled.
Why? Because anyone who lived around the Romans, as Rabbi Shimon did, would recognize the time of year, with its merry-making and gift giving, as a clear adaptation of the Festival of Saturnalia, one of the chief features of which was the suspension of the law. People could destroy property and assault innocent people without fear of reprisal, and apparently, plenty of Romans observed the holiday by degrading and murdering Jews.
Then there’s this gem:
Some of the most depraved customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city. An eyewitness account reports, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily.
So what am I, as a very new Jew with a lifetime of Christmas memories, supposed to make of this?
I’m sure I’ll work it out, but I had wanted an easy time of it, I should have waited until next year to start digging into the history