Imagine a world without light. In our modern setting we are surrounded by light. We flip a switch to repeat the miracle of “let there be light” — whenever and wherever we want it. We have to drive miles from our urban homes to experience the truly dark night sky.
But for most of human history people have lived in what the historian William Manchester described as “a world lit only by fire.”
For our ancestors who lived without modern electricity, the growing shortness of mid-winter days was of profound consequence. There is always the fear that maybe — just maybe — old Sol will continue to shrink into complete blackness. So it is not surprising that all cultures have midwinter festivals where light and dark figure as central symbols.
Christmas has the star of Bethlehem, Divali has its rows of lighted lamps, Kwanzaa its seven candles representing the seven principles. Northern Europeans celebrate St. Lucy’s Day on Dec. 12 with young St. Lucy Queens in candle-lit crowns.
The Chanukah Menorah certainly shares light and flame with these holidays, but Chanukah also brings a sense of movement and liberation to the mid-winter celebration that is unique.
Chanukah celebrates the victory in 176 BCE by an army of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, over the tyrannical king of the Selucid-Greek empire, Antiochus IV (also known as "Epimane" – "madman") who drove the Syrians out of Judea.
Upon their victory, the Macabees returned to the temple in Jerusalem to rededicate it and relight the Menorah. They could find only one small flask of oil, enough to light the Menorah for just a single day.
But miraculously the oil did not run out and the lamps shone brightly for eight days. The following year, the festival of Chanukah was officially proclaimed as an eight-day celebration, some say symbolizing the victory over persecution. One candle of the Menorah is lit each night of the celebration.
And that is where Chanukah brings movement to the mid-winter. Chanukah begins in the dark with the lighting of one candle. By the eighth day, all eight candles burn in a domestic world daily growing brighter. And the larger world will soon grow brighter as we pass the longest night and day begins its journey to overtake night.
During the ancient Romans' winter solstice celebration, the Saturnalia, the freeman’s hat was worn by freemen and slaves alike. On the first day of the seven-day festival the bonds that tied the feet of Saturn’s statue were removed to symbolize the god’s liberation from his underworld domain. The New Year was called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – day of the unconquerable sun.
Victories over modern oppressors begin with lighting a single candle. And that goes well beyond any single tradition or religion.
Right now the world seems darker that it has for decades. Democide – a word coined by political scientist Rudolph Rummel in the 1970s – is the best descriptive of the unspeakable catastrophe that has overtaken the Middle East. Vladimir Putin has reintroduced Pan-Slavist ideology to the world. Americans may be facing an object lesson of Plato's theory of the stages of government from oligarchy to populism to ultimate tyranny.
Yet, in our lifetime we have also seen events like the fall of Berlin Wall that tell us that no tyranny is forever. Not Vladimir Putin's. Not ISIS'. Not even one that many fear Donald Trump may bring to the U.S. on January 20.
An old gospel hymn says, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” Asking readers' pardon in advance for so freely mixing religious metaphors: As it happened more than 2,100 years ago in Jerusalem, and as the Gospel of John philosophically expressed the victory of an eternal light, "The light shines the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."
A version of this essay first appeared in the Santa Clara WEEKLY in Dec. 2004.
We all value Wikipedia as a source for background information on almost every subject. Please consider donating to the Wikipedia Foundation to keep this light shining.