This is a question that I’ve encountered a few times. It’s one of those questions that can take you by surprise in the early weeks of January as people begin to return to work.
“Hey my neighbours are orthodox Christians from, like, overseas somewhere in Europe, and they only just had their Christmas Day, and their New Year is different to ours too. What’s the deal?” Or from the historically schooled, “So if Christianity started off as a bunch of Jews, then how come Christians don’t celebrate Hanukkah? Why is it completely separate? Isn’t it just basically the same thing”
[Yes I had a good break, thanks. The family is fine. Yes, we did go on that hike I was telling you about. Oh wait … hang on … theology straight out of the gates? OK. No worries. That is, after all, why I’m really here, now, talking to you.]
“Well, that is an interesting question. What can I say?” [So much, but less is more with most people. Stick to the key priorities. With topics like this you build credibility and invest in the relationship. Relationship is what it’s all about, not being a walking encyclopaedia]
First, the Eastern European churches (mainly Orthodox) Christmas question:
- There is no war afoot. In fact, I spent a period of time on Saturday praying for the Christians around the world who were observing Christmas that day to enjoy safe, joyful and deeply meaningful celebrations. I know a few Orthodox Christians who do the same for us. Calendars aside, there is unity in love.
- OK this might sound a bit odd, but technically 7th January IS 25th December. A few hundred years ago some of the Eastern churches decided to use the Julian calendar, but still celebrate Christmas on 25th December on that calendar. Remember, the celebration is about the event, not the date, of the birth of Christ.
- It’s the same celebration. The Eastern European churches that celebrate Christmas on the Julian calendar are mainly Orthodox. The Orthodox Church is profoundly traditional so the church part of the Christmas celebration has changed very little over time. In a way, this makes them the truest custodians of the celebration. I respect that a lot.
[This barely scratches the surface, but it shares enough detail to satisfy most people. Nobody asks this whole package of questions anyway! Most importantly, it establishes that yet again love is the theme. No scandal. No centuries-old rift. Simply different traditions and mutual respect.]
Why is Christmas separate to Hanukkah?
- We did start off as a bunch of Jews, that’s true. It didn’t stay like that for long, though. The “Christ-followers” were radically different in a few ways which were incredibly important both to the Jews and to the Christ-followers. Today we’d call it “irreconcilable differences”. Now, though, a lot of Jews pray for Christians and a lot of Christians pray for Jews. Different traditions, some important, core different beliefs, but lots of love.
- The dates are different because these events are tied to two different calendars. Hanukkah is on 25th day of Kislev in the Jewish calendar and that lines up to anywhere between late November and late December in our calendar, depending on the moon cycles year by year.
- This is a completely different celebration. Christians celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas (not that the date lines up with that historical event) because we believe he came as our Saviour – God here on earth. Hanukkah is a festival celebrating the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (the “second temple”). In the Jewish faith system, the temple is God’s tabernacle, or tent, among us. He dwelt in the innermost area of the temple. For Christians, that understanding finished when Jesus died for us. When we celebrate his birth, it celebrates the end of much of what Hanukkah is about. This is one of the direct, irreconcilable differences. Not that it caused the rift – Christmas wasn’t even celebrated in the Christian churches until the 3rd or 4th century, long after the split from Judaism.
[Again, this barely covers the key points but it answers the question and demonstrates honesty, awareness and love. You can’t escape the rift and why would we?]
“I knew you’d have the inside scoop on this. I’ll tell my (mates, kids, family, partner) … they had a bit of a yarn, but they really wanted to know a bit more. They reckoned I wouldn’t find out, like you’re Suffleupagus or something. Hey, did you have a good break? How are the kids?”
“It was awesome” [and it just got a whole lot better]. “I think I’ll do a second New Year now you’ve given me the idea!”
In Grace and Peace, Kel.
Pastor, Grace Unbound
First and foremost, I’m a Christian living in a real and positive personal relationship with God. Through serving Him, reading the Bible and praying I grow to know Him more every day. Partnering with God is humbling, exciting, fun and serious business all at once!