The Christmas wars have changed focus in the last few years. There are still the reruns of fights over displaying nativity scenes, stars of Bethlehem, and less religious displays like Christmas trees on government-run spaces. Hundreds of lawyers are standing by, waiting for a city council to squelch caroling or a school principal to crush a candy-cane handout.
But since 2005, when the "war on Christmas" reached a fever pitch, some organizations and many individual Christians have put more emphasis on the season's greeting. At the grocery store last year, I was surprised by the indignation of a fellow shopper when the clerk wished her "Happy Holidays." The woman glowered for a moment, then responded, without a hint of merriment, "Merry Christmas."
Apparently she wasn't alone. One organization is selling bumper stickers that read, "This is America! And I'm going to say it: Merry Christmas!" and "Merry Christmas! An American Tradition." (I don't remember the American part of the Christmas story, but I haven't re-read yet this year.) Also for sale: "Just Say Merry Christmas" bracelets. ("They're guaranteed to ward off the evil spirits of the ACLU grinches," says the ad.)
Just say Merry Christmas? To everyone? Regardless of whether they actually celebrate Jesus' birth? To borrow a line from Band Aid (creators of the worst holiday song of all time), "Do they know it's Hanukkah?" For the story of Hanukkah ironically sheds light on the aggressive "Merry Christmas!" trend.
In 167 B.C., the Maccabees rebelled against the Syrian king Antiochus IV, who desecrated the temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus, and tried forcibly to Hellenize the Jews. After years of fighting, Judas Maccabeus and his small band of guerillas drove the Syrians from the temple, then cleansed and rededicated it. Modern Hanukkah observances focus less on Judas's military victory than on the miracle of a single day's worth of consecrated oil—the only container undefiled by Antiochus—burning for eight days.
Christianity has its own Hanukkah story—one that has little to do with the Nativity—that took place about two centuries after the Maccabees revolted.
"Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem," John writes. "It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon's Colonnade."
There's no menorah recorded here, nor a manger. Instead, there is a revolutionary in the temple that Judas Maccabeus had reconsecrated after defeating a massive imperial army, on the day that his victory was remembered. It was a provocative act, and John reports that Jesus' fellow Jews were provoked. "How long will you keep us in suspense?" they asked. "If you are the Christ, tell us plainly."
Jesus did answer plainly, but he didn't talk about Judas Maccabeus, Antiochus, Caesar, or Rome. "I did tell you, but you do not believe," he said. "You do not believe because you are not part of my flock." After another exchange, Jesus departed "across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. Here he stayed." Where Judas Maccabeus had fought his opponents, Jesus escaped.
The Jewish Hanukkah story is one of triumph over a culture that wanted to force the Jews to assimilate against their will. The Christian Hanukkah story is one that starts with Jesus asking provocative questions, but retreating rather than forcing the issue.