December is a holiday month for those who follow the Judeo-Christian tradition. This cross-cultural holiday season is particularly auspicious in Israel since Chanukah and Christmas take on special significance when celebrated in the Holy Land. December is one of the best months of the year for Israel travel since the climate is mild and entertainment attractions abound.
Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates survival and commemorates two miracles – a military victory and the miracle of the oil when the Temple was rededicated, and the Hebrew word Chanukah actually means “dedication” in English. Chanukah falls on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and lasts for 8 days until the 2nd of Tevet. This date varies in the Gregorian calendar but it usually coincides with the Christmas holiday.
Christmas is basically a birthday celebration for the primary persona eminent in the Christian tradition – Jesus. However, these two holidays share many similarities in terms of how they are celebrated. Firstly, Children play a central role in the December holiday celebrations. This could occur for various reasons, but from a practical standpoint, the children are on vacation and must be entertained, and this is one of the major reasons. Additionally, the educational element of these holidays is intended for children.
In the US and Diaspora, Jewish children receive Chanukah gifts for the eight-day celebration just as gentile children receive gifts at Christmas. However, in Israel, there is no tradition of gift giving. If any gifts are given, they usually consist of sweets and small sums of money or gelt. Dreidels (sevivonim) are also given everywhere, but the celebration of Chanukah in Israel is especially significant because “Nes Gadol Haya Po” (a great miracle happened here), and this difference is reflected in the four letters inscribed on the Dreidel. In the Diaspora, the dreidels are inscribed with the four letters signifying “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” (a great miracle happened there).
If you’re in Israel during Chanukah, you might want to visit the archeological site of Bet Guvrin. Jerusalem and the Modiin area are also significant since this is where the story of Chanukah took place and where the Maccabean graves are located.
Meanwhile, Christmas in Israel is an unprecedented experience for believers. In the town of Bethlehem, magnificent services take place on Christmas Eve – especially the renowned midnight mass.
By Brent J. Mitchell