Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah--as we light that first candle (or for safety's sake, screw in that first lightbulb), so begins 2009's season of hope and light. David Brooks (not normally one of my favorite columnists, given his center-right ideology) has a trenchant piece in today's NY Times on the history of the holiday.
Far from being the near-secular equivalent of a Christmas for Jewish kids, the legend of the Miracle of the Oil, and a celebration of the rededication of the Temple and the survival of the unsuccessfully-banned free exercise of religion, the origins of Hanukkah are much more complex and ethically ambiguous--the "oppressors" didn't start out all bad, the "good guys" were split between gung-ho assimilators and rigid fundamentalists (the latter of whom resorted to violence or worse to bring their modernist brethren into line. (Much the same as in the Megillah, the Purim story of Esther & Mordechai outsmarting Haman, the narrative taught to us as kids--and even in synagogue and religious school--conveniently omits the bloodshed perpetrated by the Maccabees not just on their enemies but more liberal countrymen, and by the armies of King Ahasuerus on the tens of thousands of Persians of all ages who may or may not have been sympathetic to Haman). Hanukkah originally celebrated the victory of fundamentalism over not just forced but freely-embraced secularism.
So for those who want to downplay the mythology of the miracle of the oil in the rubble of the desecrated and then rededicated Temple (one day's supply burned for eight days & nights), and instead focus on the defense and victory of freedom of religion and rededication of the Temple, perhaps it is best to leave it at that. After all, much of Western religion today is based not on actual historical fact, but traditional beliefs about what happened when and where (e.g.,the traditional site of Jesus' "tomb" lying within the walls of Jerusalem, a no-no for cemeteries under Jewish lawl the parting of the Red Sea). Moreover, there's been some fast-and-looseness played with dates, some due to dueling historians (e.g., Jesus' birth year being 4 BC--which means he was born 4 years before his era-dividing birthdate) and some borrowed from Roman and other Pagan celebrations to avoid disrupting long-established traditional observances or coming up too close to other modern religious ones (e.g., Christmas being celebrated at Solstice/Saturnalia instead of March, which could have had it concur with Easter in some years).
Therefore, let us remember Hanukkah as its English translation--"Rededication." That legend's as good as any and will serve all of us best--rededication to hope, freedom to worship (and by extension, to worship as we wish, including choosing not to), survival of a people, and joy and light in the darkest and coldest time of year (or temperate comfort from torrid high summer down under).
Season of hope, season of light--long may our joy increase. Long may we laugh and long may we love. Long may we live in peace.