Many Muslims are ambivalent about celebrating Christmas. On one hand, Muslims respect Jesus as a Prophet; and Jesus can be a bridge connecting Muslims to Christians during the festive time of December.
On the other hand, church going Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus, the Son of God; and this is definitely not an Islamic or Jewish belief.
In fact, most Imams would say that since there was no tradition of making a big celebration on the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, why should Muslims celebrate the birthday of Prophet Jesus.
Those Muslims and Jews who do celebrate Christmas, deny that they believe Jesus was the Son of God. They just desire to join in the merry mood of Christmas together with their Christian neighbors and friends, most of whom are not church going Christians anyway. But, like Jews who also do the same thing, Muslims are usually ambivalent and defensive about what they are doing.
Jews who celebrate Christmas often show their ambivalence by calling their own Christmas tree; a Hanukah bush. Most Jews, who resist the normal desire of both children and adults to fit in and conform to the majority, claim that a Hanukah bush in a Jewish home, is the direct opposite of the Jewish holiday of Hanukah, which celebrates the values of religious freedom and religious diversity.
Hanukah, the Hebrew word for Dedication refers both to two things: The rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after it was profaned in 168 BCE by an idol installed in it by the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV; and
The dedication and valor of the Maccabees, and all those who joined them in their resistance to the attempt by the ruling powers to force the Jews to abandon their God given religion, and conform to Greek forms of worship and culture. Abandoning circumcision was one example.
Those Jews who militantly resisted the pressure to conform to the majority culture were Muslims (Arabic for faithful followers of God’s will) and their dedication eventually led to religious freedom and national independence for the oppressed Jews living in the Land of Israel.
The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known historical attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs in Makka.
All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp which once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.
Hanukah’s history: In 200 BCE, King Antiochus III of Syria defeated Egypt and made the Land of Israel a part of the Seleucid Empire. King Antiochus III wanting to conciliate his new Jewish subjects guaranteed their right to “live according to their ancestral customs” and to continue to practice their religion in the Temple of Jerusalem.
However in 175 BCE, his son Antiochus IV invaded Judea to put in power a pro Syrian high Priest. As the ancient Jewish historian Josephus relates: “The king came upon the Jews with a great army, took their city by force, slew a great multitude of those that favored Egypt, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also polluted the temple (erecting an idol in it that looked like himself, so the Jews) put a stop to the daily offerings (to God) for three years and six months.”
The Hanukah tradition: When the Temple in Jerusalem was looted and services stopped, Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus IV (who named himself ‘Manifest God’) ordered an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple. He banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the Temple.
This provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. They became known as HaMakabim (the Hammers).
In 166 BCE Mattathias died, and Judah Makabee took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was largely successful. The Temple was liberated and (Hanukah) rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event.
The oil: Judah Makabee ordered the Temple to be purified, and a new altar to be built in place of the one polluted by pig’s blood. According to the Torah, pure olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn day and night throughout every year.
However, there was only enough pure oil found to burn for one day, and it would take a week to prepare a fresh supply of pure oil for the menorah.
Some said to delay the Hanukah of the Temple for a week. Others said to kindle the Temple Menorah and pray for it to last until new pure oil could be made.
The menorah was lit that evening; and it did not go out prior to the arrival of the new pure oil. An eight-day festival was declared by the rabbis to commemorate this miracle.
The lights: These can be candles or oil lamps. Most Jewish homes have a special candelabrum referred to as a Hanukkiah, (from Hanukkah) which holds eight lights plus the additional light used to light the others each evening for eight days.
The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not to “light the house within”, but rather to “illuminate the house without,” so passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle. Thus, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street.
Some Ashkenazim (Jews from European Lands) have a separate menorah for each family member (customs vary), whereas most Sephardim (Jews from Muslim Lands) light one for the whole household.
Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case in Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe before and during World War II.
Today, Jewish families use the the annual proximity of Hanukah to Christmas (this year the eight day long holiday starts on the evening of December seventh, but usually it starts about mid December or later) to teach their children the Hanukah values of religious pluralism, religious non-conformity and religious hope, faith and trust in God.
These values are the same as the Muslim values expressed in the Qur’an: “And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth.
“To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [do all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (Qur’an 5:48)
Thus, our respect for those who differ from us, and our pursuit of righteousness, are the best way to be honorable in the sight of God. As both the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible state: “Mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (and not despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (Qur’an 49:13)
And “Mankind, God has told you what is good and what it is the LORD requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)