Christmas and Chanukah share similarities, these celebrations come at the same time of year and both are marked by either lit menorah’s in Jewish homes or lights on homes and Christmas trees. Both holidays center around historic individuals that brought deliverance to the oppressed. The Maccabees overcame the oppressors of the Jewish people by brute force and the power of their own might and gave them back their temple worship. Generations later came Jesus the Messiah, who through the power of the Spirit paid the price demanded by sin, offering himself as the ultimate sacrifice to save mankind from the oppression that comes from eternal separation from G-d and the final death.
Here we will put both events into historical context. Both events took place during particularly turbulent phases of Jewish history.
The Land of Israel was thus sandwiched between two of the rivals and, for the next 125 years, Seleucids and Ptolemies battled for this prize. The former finally won in 198 B.C. when Antiochus III defeated the Egyptians and incorporated Judea into his empire. Initially, he continued to allow the Jews autonomy, but backed down in the face of Jewish opposition to his effort to introduce idols in their temples, but his son, Antiochus IV, who inherited the throne in 176 B.C. resumed his father's original policy without excepting the Jews. A brief Jewish rebellion only hardened his views and led him to outlaw central tenets of Judaism such as the Sabbath and circumcision, and defile the holy Temple by erecting an altar to the god Zeus, allowing the sacrifice of pigs, and opening the shrine to non-Jews.
When a Greek official tried to force a priest named Mattathias to make a sacrifice to a pagan god, the Jew murdered the man. Predictably, Antiochus began reprisals, but in 167 BCE the Jews rose up behind Mattathias and his five sons and fought for their liberation.
The family of Mattathias became known as the Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for "hammer," because they were said to strike hammer blows against their enemies. Jews refer to the Maccabees, but the family is more commonly known as the Hasmoneans. Like other rulers before him, Antiochus underestimated the will and strength of his Jewish adversaries and sent a small force to put down the rebellion. When that was annihilated, he led a more powerful army into battle only to be defeated. In 164 BCE, Jerusalem was recaptured by the Maccabees and the temple purified, an event that gave birth to the holiday of Chanukah which is known as the Festival of Lights.
The kingdom of Judaea was independent until 63BC when it was conquered by the Roman General Pompey the Great. After that the Romans made it a client state with kings who controlled domestic life in the kingdom but could not wage war or conduct any other foreign policy efforts without the consent of Rome. They also had to pay taxes and in some cases had to provide troops. In 6 AD Augustus made Judaea a Roman province after one of the kingdom’s leaders was accused of cruelty and breaking Jewish law. This came about around the time of the birth of Jesus.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom,
to establish it, and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9: 6-7)
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest,and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20)