Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah doesn’t draw on events described in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Maccabees, from which the story comes, is in the Apocrypha, the non-canonical, more esoteric books of sacred scripture. There’s a reason it never made it out of there: I won’t say it’s spurious, but it doesn’t quite feel authentic.
Isn’t there something a touch suspicious, for example, about our defeating the Syrian-Greek army? It lacks equivocation. Escaping from bondage in Egypt by dint of magic and smart talk is comprehensible: Exodus played to our strengths. Similarly, Esther — who had married out of the faith, remember — turning the tables on Haman. In our best stories, we lose a little to gain a little. We use our heads. Trouncing the Syrian-Greeks sounds worryingly like wish fulfillment, and the story of the oil that should have run out after one day actually lasting eight feels too much like parable.
I find myself every year explaining to Christian friends that Hanukkah is not really a major holiday in which I take days off from work. It is really a minor one. The reason it finds so much resonance in American culture is so that little Jewish boys and girls do not feel left out of the whole Xmas, gift-giving thing. So the quintessentially American Buy Gifts For Your Loved Ones Or Else The Economy Will Go Down The Tubes now includes Hanukkah. Hooray.
But in terms of religious value, it is way less important than Passover, The High Holy Days, Shavuos [i.e., Festival of Weeks], Sukkos [i.e., Tabernacles], and the Sabbath. For all but our Sabbath [which BTW is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar], we say Yizkor [Remembrance of the Dead] and miss work or school. Hanukkah is more like Purim or Tu B’Shvat on the Scale of Importance. Sure, we have some fun, but….meh.
Still, there is an upside, an important one, to the exaggerated importance of this minor holiday. The kids really do like Hanukkah. OK, they like it because they get bribed. Whatever. They manage to sit still and listen to some accounts of their traditions and lessons on how it all fits into who they are. Believe me, I’ll take it.