01/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Spirit of Chanukah

One of the "holiday traditions" is kvetching about Christmas. I'm Jewish, and for the most part Jews in America have always resented Christmas. If it wasn't for Christians, the problems Jews have had over the centuries, like being kicked out of our homes and getting the crap beaten out of us again and again happened at the behest of the Church. So when I hear all the warm Christmas music and messages of good cheer, I can't help but feel it's all too tedious.

Yes, there are lots of reasons to resent Christmas, but the one that gets me is how it has totally ruined Chanukah. "Our" holiday usually coincides with "their" holiday some time in the month of December. The 12th month isn't necessarily the worst of the year, but it feels like it sometimes. It's dark, cold and obnoxious.

I guess it was inevitable that Chanukah would become "Christmas Lite," and did so years ago. For much of the last century, Chanukah is a festival that exists out of envy, like Kwanzaa. Little kids hear or something like, "Chanukah Harry comes to every Jewish household and puts presents under the Chanukah bush." It's as if everybody has to get with the spirit of the season and that means everybody! You can have a little kink here and there, but everyone has to get with the program: "Santy is coming to your house too!" Jeeeez!

Chanukah has nothing to do with sugar plum fairies or sleigh bells jangling through the snow, nor is it for little Jewish children who feel left out when it comes to someone else's holiday. It has to do with the state of revolutionary grace that many nations have experienced. It's like a Jewish Bastille Day, a Fourth of July, and Cinco de Mayo all wrapped in one!

Everyone knows that the holiday has something to do with a miracle of lamp oil lasting eight days instead of one, but that's really a cover for something far more important -- it's a story of freedom, and more significant than that, it's about a freedom that was lost.

Jewish kids learn that in Hebrew school, but fewer and fewer go anymore, and the vast majority of gentiles think that Chanukah is the holiday where the Jewish candelabra -- the menorah -- has to go next to a crèche in order to be politically correct. To understand the real meaning of Chanukah, you have to go back thousands of years, before Northern and Western Europe had been civilized and when the center of Western civilization was in Africa.

After Alexander the Great died under suspicious circumstances in 323 BC, his heirs were deemed unqualified. He had a mentally challenged brother, a bastard son, and a pregnant wife who couldn't cut it in the macho world of the Macedonian legions. So his generals decided to divide his newly minted empire which consisted of Greece, the Achaemenid Persian Empire and a bit of Afghanistan. This led to a series of wars called the "funeral games" that lasted for decades, and when it was over, there were three empires left -- Macedonia, Egypt, and the Seleucid Empire, which stretched from India to the middle of what is now Turkey.

General Selucius, after whom it was named, was clearly the winner, but he and his progeny weren't satisfied. They wanted it all. So they attacked Egypt, Greece and India -- which had broken away early on -- and tried to conquer these countries; they failed each time. Of these losses, the most important was the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC, where the dissolute Pharaoh Ptolemy IV managed to beat the forces of Antiochus III, who called himself "the Great."

The Egyptians went forward to get the Seleucids out of the province of Cole-Syria (now called Israel) which was populated primarily by Jews. This push failed and Ptolemy's son, the fifth, gave Antiochus the province. That's where the problem started.

The Jews liked the Ptolemies; they didn't overtax and left well enough alone. This was not something the Seleucids wanted to do. They had the idea that ruling an empire of diverse peoples was not desirable and wanted to make everyone Greek, and in this effort they had a secret weapon.

The name of this weapon was being "cool." Greek culture was much cooler than the Jewish culture of the time. Blame the third commandment. Jews weren't allowed to draw or sculpt. The Greeks were at the top of their form at this time, and from archeological remains and written testimonies, the lure of beautiful art and the quest for human physical perfection was really tempting. This is something that today's American Jews can identify with.

Reading the two books of the Maccabees (it's part of the Catholic Bible for some reason) one becomes conflicted as to which side one would want to be on. The High Priest Jason -- who ran the temple in Jerusalem -- seemed like a pretty good guy.

But then comes the real villain of this piece. Antiochus IV, known to history as Epimanes, the Nutcase. He was one of the most repulsive tyrants in the Greco-Roman world.

Unlike the Roman emperors Titus and Hadrian, who had followings among ancient historians despite the fact they did lots of evil stuff, Antiochus Epimanes had few supporters. Except for the fact his coins show that he was good looking, he had almost no other redeeming qualities. He was the perfect villain.

Antiochus inherited the most powerful empire of the day, and one faction of the Jews of Cole-Syria had nothing but swords and a healthy dislike of other Jews of Cole-Syria. As a house divided, they were easy to pick on; so that's what he did. He banned the Jewish population from practicing Judaism.

One of his few apologists, historian Karen Armstrong, couldn't understand why he did such a thing, but he did, and the two sides of the mini-civil war got together in common cause under Matthias the Hasmonean and his seven sons, including Judah the Maccabee (that's Hebrew for "hammer") -- the most famous of the bunch. A tiny force beat back the biggest army in the world, and there was that moment of revolutionary grace when the Jewish battalion stood on the Temple Mount in 163 BC.

This was the last war the Jews would win for over 2000 years -- something to celebrate for sure. Unfortunately, the Maccabees after Judah weren't that wonderful as rulers and the Jews wound up with the likes of Herod and Pontius Pilate. The Hasmonean 4th of July, Chanukah, became far less important. Independence day without independence seems kind of pointless, so the myth of the long-lasting oil became prominent, but it shouldn't have.

Remember that most of the Antiochus Epimaneses of the past two millennia were Christian, and that Jews celebrating Christmas is like siding with the Spanish Inquisition and the Russian Czars. We should have the right to abstain from Christmas and the right to say no to those damn carols and forced cheer.

We should have the right to say, "Darn it! I'm Jewish and screw Christmas! Screw Santa and screw all that other stuff." The spirit of Chanukah demands that we don't feel envious that our neighbors have trees in their houses. I think Jesus -- being Jewish -- would be on our side.