A study of the history of every religious system suggests, however, that religion is itself a human creation. Every religious tradition participates in and is shaped by cultural factors, time-bound understandings of the world of nature, and prevailing tribal prejudices.
Nothing illustrates this conclusion better than a look into the origins of both Hanukkah and Christmas and especially at how these religious celebrations were positioned in the calendars of the western world.
Both holidays feature the restoration of light to a darkened world and both reveal that they are the product of people living in the northern hemisphere.
Hanukkah was a late-developing festival, which came into the cycle of Jewish liturgical observances in the second century before the common era. It was designed to mark the time when a military leader named Judas, nicknamed "The Hammer" [or Maccabeas in Hebrew] routed the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes and his army. The Temple in Jerusalem was thus restored to the worship of Yahweh.
To show utter contempt for their Jewish vassal state, the Syrians had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by tearing down the sacred symbols of the Jews and replacing them with pagan symbols. In the Holy of Holies, regarded by the Jews as the very dwelling place of God, the Syrians had placed the head of an unclean pig that the Jews referred to as "the Abomination of Desolation."
The victorious Judas stripped away these offending images and restored the sanctity of the Temple. Then, the tradition states, he lit the eight-branched candelabra called the Menorah to initiate a time of great celebration. These candles burned miraculously to extend the celebration for eight days. In the minds of the Jewish faithful this act not only restored light to darkness, but it also replaced idolatry with true faith.
That was what Hanukkah celebrated.
In the earliest birth story of Jesus, written by Matthew somewhere between the years 80-85, the primary symbol was a star--bright, radiant and beautiful--that illumined the darkness of the night. This star was said to have the power to guide Magi through the darkness to the birth place of this newborn savior.
In the second account of Jesus' birth, written by Luke sometime between the years 88-92, the light symbol was a resplendent angel accompanied by a host of angelic beings who cracked the midnight sky with a heavenly brightness. To shepherds recoiling before this unearthly light, the tradition said that the angels spoke the words "fear not" and announced the birth of the one who later would be referred to as the "true light" which "came down from heaven."
Historical records from that period are scant, and no one today can date with precision either the defeat of Antiochus by Judas Maccabeas or the actual time of the birth of Jesus. That did not stop either tradition, however, from locating their celebrations in the dead of winter. That choice was not designed to coincide with literal history, but to meet a deep and ancient human yearning that antedates by thousands of years both Judaism and Christianity.
As far back as human records go, it is clear that people in the northern hemisphere have observed with acts of worship that moment when the daylight stopped its relentless retreat into darkness and began its march back into the world. That human yearning for light to come to a dark world shaped both Hanukkah and Christmas.
Indeed it captured them. That is why both celebrations are located in the darkest time of the year.
Modern people have great difficulty imagining either the experience or the fears of our primitive human ancestors. We live today in an artificially lighted world. We can hurl back the darkness of night with the flip of a switch. We can travel far from home in darkness by turning on the headlights of our automobiles, or by utilizing the lights marking the landing fields of our airports. We live in cities with electrified streets and neon sign boards.