How Hanukkah developed
The tradition for lighting lamps had developed by the first century AD and the Festival of Lights is the name used for the festival in other sources at this period. One reason may have been the diplomatic problem of celebrating freedom from the Greeks when under the rule of another empire, the Romans. Also the Maccabees founded the dynasty of the Hasmoneans who were Sadducees and so would not have been popular with the Pharisees. The Hanukkah lights enabled the rabbis to focus the festival on a religious theme.
For most of later Jewish history this has been the focus of Hanukkah. In the Middle Ages the theme of martyrdom for the Jewish faith grew in significance. The story of Hannah and her sons and also of Judith and Holofernes became popular. These were to encourage Jewish people to stand firm in their faith against persecution. The tradition of playing with a dreidel or spinning top also became prevalent. It is thought that during times of persecution, a dreidel was kept out while people were studying the Torah scroll. If attackers burst in, the scroll was whisked away and it looked as if the people were simply playing a game of chance with a spinning top. The letters on the top, NGHS, are supposed to stand for, `Nes Gadol Hayah Sham', or `A great miracle happened there'.
With the rise of Zionism in the nineteenth century, the military aspect of the festival again became popular and, in Israel, the military theme remains strong. Celebrations are particularly held at Modi'in, and torches are carried from there to other parts of Israel and beyond. Finally in the twentieth century especially in America, Hanukkah has come to be a kind of Jewish Christmas. The old tradition of giving money or `Hanukkah gelt', has been developed into a general present giving tradition, and the Hanukkah lights have replaced the Christmas tree as a focus for the festival.
Jesus and Hanukkah
Surprisingly, the earliest historical source for this festival using the name Hanukkah or Dedication is in the New Testament and I used this as a source for the second part of the drama.
John Chapter 10 records an incident when Jesus clashed with local Judeans in the outer courts of the Temple at the feast of Hanukkah. They were hoping that Hanukkah would be the time when they might find freedom from the Romans. The Messiah might be someone who would be similar to Judah Maccabee - could Jesus fulfil this role? Instead John records Jesus speaking about eternal life, of his sheep in another fold, and of his relationship with God. Much of this was to explain the conflict between Jews and Christians by the end of the first century.
A hint of this desire for a king Messiah can also be found in the Palm Sunday story. Palm branches were waved at the first Hanukkah as the people celebrated the victory of Judah Maccabee. The palm branches of Jesus' final entrance into Jerusalem encapsulated the hope of the people that he, like Judah Maccabee, would lead the people to freedom. This was a very different concept to a Messiah who had come to suffer and die for his people and bring them new life through his resurrection. These different views of the Messiah have continued as different concepts in the two faiths. Christians would understand that Jesus knew that the light he had to bring was not just the Menorah in the Holy Place, but to bring light to the whole world. His job was not to lead an army against the Romans, but to fight a battle against death and evil and by beating them make it possible for all of us to be forgiven and have eternal life through him. The light in the Temple was a beautiful picture of what Jesus had come to bring and he was now going to spread that light to the rest of the world. Jewish people believe that the Messiah (or Messianic age) has yet to come and when it does it will be particularly characterised by peace on earth.