Chanukah* begins this Thursday night. I love it when it happens this way. When Chanukah starts and ends before Christmas, my holiday gets a little more air.
Instead of all the Christmas and Chanukah and Solstice parties happening on the same weekend, they get a bit spread out. Chanukah weekend is December 8-10, 2023. The Solstice happens a full week after Chanukah ends, on Thursday, December 21, at 10:27 PM. Christmas is not far behind.
Why do the dates change?
Let’s start with Christmas. It’s on December 25th, right? Most American Christians think so. That’s because some Roman Catholic authorities decided that. Most Christians with Western European and North American heritage celebrate on that day.
Family traditions vary; some families may have the biggest celebration on the 24th, Christmas Eve. Some Western European and North American heritage people also celebrate the twelve days of Christmas leading to Epiphany on January 6. Some celebrate the four weeks leading up to Christmas (Advent), with Christmas being the capstone of a month-long celebration. So, it is not simply December 25th.
For Eastern Christians and Spanish Christians, Epiphany is more important. Three Kings Day is Epiphany. It is when the importance of the birth of Jesus is revealed, according to Gospel of Matthew. For Eastern Christians, Christmas Eve is January 6, not December 24th. Eastern Christian communities follow the Jullian calendar, instead of the Gregorian one. The Gregorian one was used by those Roman Catholic authorities to fix Christmas on the 25th.
Celebrating Christmas on December 25 is a diversity problem for Latinx families here in Massachusetts. South American and some Caribbean Christians would prefer to carry on their tradition of Christmas on Three Kings Day, January 6th. But, their children are expected to resume school right after New Year’s Day. There is no Christmas break for Epiphany/Three Kings Day.
Solstice is a physical event
Humans in the northern hemisphere have noticed for millennia that the days get shorter through the autumn, then begin to get longer again beginning during the last weeks of December. There is a point where the tilted earth begins to turn its northern hemisphere back towards the sun. There is a specific moment when that shift happens. This year, the days start getting longer after the night of December 21.
Throughout the northern hemisphere, there are cultural events that celebrate the point when the light begins to return. Here in Massachusetts, there are private and public Solstice events.
Hebrew calendar months are lunar months, starting with the new crescent moon. They are shorter than the solar calendar we use (the Gregorian calendar). Each Hebrew month is closer to 28 or 29 days, not 30 or 31 days. The holidays stay consistent within seasons because the Hebrew calendar incorporates leap years, where another month is added; this evens out the difference between 28- or 29-day months and 30- or 31-day months on the Gregorian calendar.
Chanukah happens on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. That will always be in the late autumn. Chanukah happens sometime between the last week of November and the beginning of January. It is an 8-day holiday, so it frequently overlaps Christmas. Not this year. But next year, it starts on December 25th because there is a leap month coming up next spring.
*Chanukah. I spell it that way. If you don’t like it, lump it. There is a silly debate flying around about which transliteration from the Hebrew is correct. I just don’t care. Spell check is not the authority I follow.