Tonight marks the first of eight nights of the festival of Chanukah for the Jewish calendar year, 5768. I have heard several Jewish friends remark that Chanukah is “so early” this year. No, it is at exactly the same time as it always is: the 25th of Kislev. Of course, what these people mean is that it is early relative to the 25th of December on Pope Gregory’s calendar.
So, why are the two calendars so much out of alignment this year? It is because the Jewish calendar is lunar first, and solar only secondarily.1 The Gregorian calendar always ensures that Christmas Day, the 25th of December, will fall a few days after the winter solstice. That makes sense at some level, because when the Church, in the fourth century, set the holy day commemorating the birth of Jesus to this time of year, it was to graft Christianity’s celebration of the birth of its Messiah onto the existing winter season celebrations already practiced in the Roman Empire (Saturanalia) and elsewhere in Europe (various winterfest or Yule celebrations).
Chanukah, on the other hand, is the festival of lights. Commemorating the rededication of the ancient Temple after the successful Macabean revolt against assimilationist tendencies that nearly wiped out Judaism (more than a century before Jesus), it symbolically brings light to the darkest time of year, in memory of a dark period in ancient Jewish history.
The “problem,” if the non-coincidence of Christmas and Chanukah can be described as such, is that the sun and moon cycles do not align the same way year after year (though they come back in alignment every 19 years). If Chanukah is to be about bringing light at the darkest time of year, then it really needs to be at the darkest time of year. In terms of the sun, the winter solstice is indeed the darkest time of the year–the day with the shortest daylight. The farther north you go (within the northern hemisphere), the more the sun would be your dominant influence on the perception of overall darkness. However, a bit farther south–say around Jerusalem2–the differences between seasonal day lengths are less dramatic. Not insignificant, of course. Tonight Jerusalem will have about 13 hours, 48 minutes between sunset and sunrise, and about 13:56 on the winter solstice, compared with 9:47 on the summer solstice. But that is far less stark than locations farther north–for instance, in London, near the site of ancient sun-cycle festivals at Stonehenge the gap between sunset and sunrise at the winter solstice is about 16 hours, 11 minutes, compared to 7:42 at the summer solstice. Of course, the farther towards the poles one goes, the more significant this seasonal difference becomes.
In the Land of Israel, then, it is not surprising, perhaps, that our ancient spiritual ancestors would have been just as concerned with moon cycles as sun. It was a newly settled agricultural society, struggling to wean its citizens off pagan worship of separate gods of sun, moon, rain, wind, and so on. It needed a way to tie the natural cycles of such concern to agriculture to a single Source governing all these elements. Thus nearly all of our holidays are timed to the new or full moon at some important point in the agricultural calendar. So Rosh haShanah is the new moon following the autumnal equinox, and marks the beginning of the High Holy Days, which culminate with the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the first night of which is the full moon. Pesach is the full moon following the vernal equinox, after which we count the omer leading up to the early-summer (or late spring) first harvest festival, Shavuot.
What has all this to do with Chanukah being now, instead of closer to the solstice (and hence also to Christmas)? The full moon (of the month of Tevet) will coincide this year with the night of the 23rd of December, meaning the moon will be almost full around the winter solstice. Thus while the sunset indeed would be early, if the night is clear, it will be very bright. Christmas Eve will be a bright, moonlit night this year–which seemingly would make it hard for the Wise Men to see the star that guided them to Bethlehem (though that means the night sky will be darkening as the moon will have passed its third-quarter phase before the 12th night).
Our lighting of candles for Chanukah begins–every year–five nights before the new moon (of the Jewish month of Tevet) and ends on the second night following that new moon. This will always be the darkest moon phase closest to the shortest day of the year. We begin lighting candles, adding one more each night, just as the sun and moon together are making the nights longer and darker. As we finish the 8th evening, and gaze upon our beautiful fully lit chanukiah (the special menorah for this holiday), we are completing the festival just as the nights are getting brighter. Alas, the days, this year, will continue to get a bit shorter for just over a week after the end of Chanukah, and this fact is one of the signals that this year, 5768, must be a leap year: There will be two months of Adar–the month right before Nisan, when we have Pesach–in order to bring the sun and moon cycles of the Jewish calendar back in synch.
Thus next year, Chanukah will be back to coincide with the winter solstice and hence Christmas. In fact, the first night of Chanukah in 5769 will be at sundown on 21 December, thus right at the winter solstice. And thus Christmas Eve will be the night of the fourth of the eight candles in the chanukiah, and a very dark evening indeed (but for our candles and the star in the retelling of the original Christmas story).
I know some American Jews lament years in which Chanukah comes “early.” Maybe I do, too, as it means I don’t have the days off and it is hard for the family to be together at sundown for the lighting of the candles, given the academic calendar’s being fixed to the Gregorian. However, on religious-cultural grounds, I rather like it when it stands alone. Because as a holiday, Chanukah really does stand alone, as an opportunity to bring light literally and figuratively into a too-dark world, as a celebration of the always relevant struggle for religious and cultural autonomy, and as a commemoration of events without which there would never have been a Christmas at which to celebrate the promise of peace and brotherhood that still remains far too elusive.
So, I call upon my Jewish friends: Next time someone laments that Chanukah is “so early” this year, remind them that, no, it is Christmas that comes late!
Please also see last year’s Chanukah planting, which went into some more detail on the agricultural/seasonal connections of the holiday, and marked the first of a four-season series on these themes.
Sun data from timeanddate.com
A couple of errors corrected since initial planting.