Light of the World

As I light the Hanukkah candles, I'm thinking about all the avenues for bringing light into a darkened world.

It is December, the 12th month of the secular year and already by late afternoon, not a glimmer of light pierces the New York City winter sky. Yet, like hopeful beacons to the heavens, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is wrapped in more than five miles of Christmas lights, with the largest-ever Swavorski star glittering atop it, and the world’s largest menorah will illuminate the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street for eight nights starting on the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 15. From the Bronx Zoo’s half a million holiday lights to Grand Central Station’s all-new light show, we are a city that artificially seeks to dispel the celestial darkness of December in the time-honored tradition, with manmade sparkle and light.

December, and I will celebrate Hanukkah with my husband and three children, lighting candles, singing songs about miracles and Maccabees, while privately pondering Hanukkah's unsanitized history, and how it relates to my ongoing obsession with divination. Hanukkah coincides with the winter solstice and, like pagan solstice celebrations, lasts for eight days. However, it is rooted in a historical event: In the second century BCE in Jerusalem, the Jews rid the Temple of the Greek Hellenists who had taken it over and were defiling it by sponsoring nude wrestling matches, promoting temple prostitution, demanding pig sacrifice, and worshipping Zeus.


In the midst of this merriment, it is also probable that the Hellenists were engaging in all sorts of winter solstice activities, which were anathema to the religious Jews of the time. The winter solstice, celebrated on Dec. 17, was a time when people exchanged gifts, offered sacrifices, and indulged in orgies. Judah Maccabee and his family fought against the Greeks, ultimately driving the Hellenists out of the Temple, but found only a small amount of kosher oil with which to re-dedicate the Temple to God. Miraculously, and undoubtedly mythically, this oil lasted for eight days, the amount of time it took to press more olive oil to purify the Temple. According to the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, however, the Temple “was rededicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. And they celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days.”

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