I teach at a large, public university in the Bible belt. It has a reputation for conservatism, and there are said to be many Christians among its students. As a public institution it is, however, rigidly secular in its outward appearance and official pronouncements, so this is one place where it is not beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
We do have a thirteen-foot menorah on the principal public plaza, though; which was raised last night with the assistance of the President (a Mormon), and is presumably slated to remain in place for the duration of Hanukkah. As I was in the neighborhood, I strolled through the plaza this morning, to see the menorah, and to see any other symbols that might have been raised to mark the holiday season.
There weren’t any.
I would not be surprised if there is a Tree in some other prominent place, and secretaries have hung stockings, ivy and tinsel in the offices, but such symbols of Christmas as exist are all of the jingle-bells, snowman and green-jacketed-elf variety. I doubt a crèche would be legal.
Speaking at the menorah dedication, a local rabbi explained the menorah as a symbol of “religious freedom in general,” said the Maccabean army fought for freedom to “practice their faiths [sic] openly,” and assured the audience that Hanukkah was a holiday that “all faiths can identify with.”
As a matter of fact, the Maccabees were what we today call fanatics and fundamentalists. Their enemies were Hellenized Jews who were supported by Antiochus IV, the Seleucid King. The Hellenized Jews were what we today call liberals. When Antiochus profaned the Temple by dedicating it to Zeus, he was really establishing the religious tolerance that is typical of empires: rational hedonism (i.e. Epicureanism) for the elites and promiscuous polytheism for the hoi polloi.
Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees and the purification of the profaned Temple. If it represents anything, it represents rejection of religious freedom and assertion of a national right to religious orthodoxy. As the rabbi said, this is something “all faiths can identify with,” but I do not think he would be happy if they did.
I would not be pleased if Christian students tore down the menorah and “purified” the plaza with a crèche, but I would have to say that any students who did this were exhibiting the fighting Maccabean spirit.
It is utterly bizarre that Hanukkah and the Maccabean Revolt should have become a symbol of multicultural tolerance and ecumenical brotherhood, when Antiochus and the Hellenized Jews were the liberals.
Then the King wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the King. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion . . . . But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved not to eat unclean food.” (I Maccabees)
Actually, it isn’t bizarre. It’s ironic. We can’t give up our customs fast enough, and we smack our lips over a plate of unclean food.