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Mayor’s Message: A brief history of Christmas and Hanukkah

In this week's Mayor's Message, Mayor Louis Manzo focuses on the history of Christmas and Hanukkah in time for the holiday season

I have gotten great feedback on the historical references I occasionally make in my weekly Mayor’s Message. Attempting a brief history of the December holiday season in 500 words is a tall order, but I’ll give it a shot, focusing only on Christmas and Hanukkah here. These details touch on religious beliefs, so my disclaimer is that your faith is yours. This is just a glance at a few historical perspectives because I love history, even when there are different interpretations.

Obviously, Christmas is rooted in the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Was he actually born on Dec. 25, though? The reality is we don’t know the exact month and day of his birth. The first record of Christmas being celebrated on Dec. 25 was in 336 AD, under the Roman Emperor Constantine.

There are various theories why that day was chosen. The Bible says that Mary was told by the Archangel Gabriel that she would give birth to this very special child. This is known as the Annunciation and celebrated in Christian faith on March 25. Hence, nine months later would have been Dec. 25. Supporting the theory, the date also aligned with the winter solstice (Dec. 21), which had already been a celebratory time since the solstice marked the end of winter.

Practically speaking, there is reason to believe that Jesus was not born in the winter. First, shepherds (prominent in the biblical story), likely would not have their sheep out on the hills in cold weather. That’s why some believe that spring was a more probable timeframe for the birth. The accounting that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for a required census might support a springtime theory. The Jewish festival of Passover (March or April) was an established celebration by then, with Jews from all over the Roman Empire flocking to Jerusalem (only 6 miles from Bethlehem). It seems like a logical time to conduct a census and Mary and Joseph would likely be there for Passover. That said, for about 1,800 years, Christians worldwide have recognized the birth of Jesus Christ as Christmas Day, Dec. 25.

In December, those of Jewish faith celebrate Hanukkah. Known as the Festival of Lights, the tradition is rooted in the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around 165 BC. The Maccabean Revolt had successfully expelled the invading Greek monarchy from Judea. Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud (ceremonial law), undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the high priest was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night.

The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival, Hanukkah, was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.

Wishing all of Mullica Hill a happy holiday season.

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