Last night, a miracle occurred for this Pagan-Jewish girl: the Winter Solstice and the first night of Chanukah, sacred holidays devoted to the coming back of the light, happened on the same night.
Last year’s Winter Solstice coincided with a full lunar eclipse for the first time in 400 years, and in that moment I felt a tremendous shifting of the energies of the planet and a powerful, beautiful dawning of a new era. This year has indeed proven to be one of seemingly unimaginable shifts and a global social awakening unlike anything we’ve seen before, which left me wondering – what does the synchronistic alignment of these two holy days portend for the coming year?
Continuing on with the theme of synchronicity, it just so happened that the wisest and most well-studied Jewitch that I know had traveled down from Washington to celebrate the solstice with my pagan community in San Francisco, and just as all of this was occurring to me, I found him kneeling by our bonfire on Ocean Beach lighting two white candles in the sand.
We sang the blessings in English and Hebrew, and I asked him how often this miracle – the Winter Solstice and the first night of Chanukah perfectly eclipsing — happened.
“Oh, fairly often,” he said.
“Really?” was all I could think to say. What was this guy trying to do? This was a miracle we were talking about here. Wisest and most well-studied my tuckus.
My friend proceeded to dispel one of the most esoteric mysteries of my childhood: the first night of Chanukah is not scheduled through some arcane divinatory rite of the ancient Rabbis, but actually predictably falls five nights before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice. Which means that the middle of the Festival of Lights always falls on the darkest night nearest to the longest night of the year.
Now, as some of you may have guessed, I only went to Sunday school from the age of five until about nine, and that’s pretty much the extent of my Jewish education. Which means that I know much more about latkes and playing dreidel than anything notably religious.
The story that I remembered from my childhood about the meaning of Chanukah went something like this: the Jews were once again being beaten up by a bunch of bullies, but then at the last minute God came to our aid and we got our temple back, and miraculously the oil that we thought would only last one day actually burned for eight days, giving them enough time to get some more oil, which meant that none of the Jews died of cold and everyone could see and we all lived happily ever after.
It had never occurred to me before that there might be a deep and potentially disheartening connection between these two beautiful holidays that light up the coldest, darkest time of year. But in a single moment it all became suddenly very clear to me: those Jewish guerillas hiding in the mountains had been in a bloody and violent war with their pagan neighbors, and it may be that the relationship between the Winter Solstice and celebration of Chanukah is similar to Christmas’s all-too-convenient December date. Both hint at the history of cultural appropriation, colonization, and conquest of nature-based, matriarchal cultures by patriarchal, militaristic cultures during the past two thousand years.
Oy, Goddess. That’s a pretty heavy realization to have on the longest night of the year.
Of course, in the specific case of the Maccabees who kept the ritual oil burning in the temple for eight days in order to purify and rededicate it after a long era of religious intolerance, it seems that we are actually talking about two very patriarchal cultures in conflict with one another. Interestingly enough, in that way, the conflict-filled history surrounding the story of Chunakah is resonant with one story from the Celtic tradition about the Winter Solstice: in that story, this is the time of year that the Oak King – who gets weaker during the autumn, just as his sacred trees lose their leaves – is reborn to do battle with his evergreen twin, the Holly King. Although mythically this is a story about nature and the turning of the year, many scholars suspect that it also hints at a history of violence and conquest between two tribes or cultures. Older stories about the Solstice focus more on the dark goddess laboring to rebirth the sun child and return fertility to the earth once again, rather than war between two kings.
Perhaps, a night like last night – when people from different traditions gather to celebrate the returning of the light, purification from a legacy of bloodshed, and connecting to what is hopeful, bright, and possible– offers us rebirth. These dark times are calling for us to look at what is highest and most sacred in all of our stories, weave together our common threads, and work for a peaceful, fertile world that we can pass down to those who will continue to evolve our beloved spiritual traditions.
There is much that the Pagans of today can learn from a story that is about standing up to Empire and dedicating ourselves to the defense of the place we hold to be most holy. There is much that the Jews of today can learn from a story that is about connecting to the energy of birth and the renewal that this beautiful earth offers even – or especially – in the dark times that seem endless.
In that way, I still can’t help feeling that there is something quite magical and healing about the first night of Chanukah aligning with the Winter Solstice.
And I’m quite glad that it happens fairly often.
“For sun, moon, and earth,for the spirals of their dark and light,for cold and heat, for summer and winter,for seedtime and harvest,for day and night,for the One whose covenant entwines all spirals–We light all lights.”– Jewish Renewal Blessing for Chanukah by R. Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center