Last Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent for many Christian churches around the world. Since our curriculum is interfaith, our Advent season is, too. Our theme, an apt one for this time of the year, is Lights. Each Sunday, we talk about a holiday, celebrated in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that honors light. This year, our weekly themes will be Advent, Hanukkah, Solstice, and Christmas.
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The four Sundays are often marked by lighting one candle, often placed in a wreath, for each week. Traditional Sunday School readings tend to be from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. These passages apparently predict the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. The story of John the Baptist (found in Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, and John 1) is also a popular choice, especially since all four passages quote Isaiah the prophet.
But we’re not a typical church, so these are not our Bible verses of choice. Besides, our theme is Lights. Instead, we focus on John 1 – the passage that comes before the John the Baptist story. It’s a fairly familiar passage that tends to be used for Christmas.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
We continue with Jesus’ claim that he was the light of the world and his assertion that followers of his message are also lights to the world.
Again Jesus spoke to them saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
Since Advent marks the start of the liturgical year in the Western Christian calendar, it’s a great time to talk to the kids about how each of us can shine our light during the upcoming year.
On the second Sunday in Advent, we light two Advent candles on our Advent wreath, and then we celebrate Hanukkah. Hanukkah is known as the “festival of lights,” and it falls sometime in late November or December. Many people are familiar with Hanukkah, the menorah, and the tradition of giving small gifts. Fewer people are familiar with the story behind Hanukkah. The Hanukkah story is found – sort of – in First and Second Maccabees. These books are included in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic Bibles, but they are not included in Protestant or Hebrew Bibles.
The story is manageable for our upper elementary and middle school kids, who read the account, as is, from the ancient texts after a brief introduction. In 200BCE, Judea was ruled by Antiochus III the Great, who granted the Jewish people a fair amount of freedom to practice their religion as they wished. In 175BCE, his son, Antiochus IV, invaded Judea, wreaking havoc on Jewish life. The 2nd Temple in Jerusalem was looted, defaced, and defiled; the position of High Priest was bought and sold several times; and Jewish rituals and texts were banned. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his 5 sons, led the rebellion against Antiochus IV and his allies. Following the revolt’s success, the temple was rededicated.
On the twenty-fifth of the ninth month, Chislev, in the year 148 they rose at dawn and offered a lawful sacrifice on the new altar of burnt offering which they had made. The altar was dedicated, to the sound of hymns, zithers, lyres and cymbals, at the same time of the year and on the same day on which the gentiles had originally profaned it. The whole people fell prostate in adoration and then praised Heaven who had granted them success. For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar, joyfully offering burnt offerings, communion and thanksgiving sacrifices. (1 Maccabees 4:52-56)
So that’s where the eight days come from. This is why the menorah holds eight candles (and a ninth “helper” candle). But the miraculous oil that lasted for eight days, which is also part of the Hanukkah story, comes from the Talmud, a massive volume of work containing rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Bible.
For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.
(Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath Folio 21b:23-26)
We celebrate Hanukkah in fairly standard ways. Our younger kids read one of the many Hanukkah books available. If Sunday School happens to fall during the 8-day festival, they light the appropriate number of candles on their menorah. They also play dreidel, a popular Hannukah game that uses a spinning top (also called a dreidel). Books, web sites, and on-line videos can teach you how to light menorah candles in the correct order and the rules for playing dreidel. Gold-covered chocolate coins, menorahs, menorah candles, and wooden dreidels can be bought fairly inexpensively at local synagogues, craft stores, or even discount merchandisers. There are also templates on the internet for making your own dreidels out of cardstock.
The Winter Solstice is roughly defined as the shortest day/longest night of the year, usually occurring around December 20-21 in the northern hemisphere. We honor the solstice and its related earth-based celebrations on the third Sunday in Advent. The kids might learn about Yule, the midwinter holiday observed by Germanic peoples of old that celebrated the return of the light with feasting and the burning of a Yule log. Or they might learn about Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival dedicated to the god Saturn. During Saturnalia, a carnival attitude prevailed for several days. Gifts were exchanged, colorful clothes replaced togas, gambling was allowed, and masters and servants temporarily traded roles.
Our kids also sometimes read stories from various cultures about winter, the seasons, the sun, or the balance between light and darkness. The older kids might learn about archeological sites, like Mexicos’ Chichen Itza or England’s Stonehenge, whose construction indicates that ancient people were well aware of the solstices and equinoxes. Object lessons might include decorating a tree, making a wreath, or crafting a sun. And everyone talks about how some of these ancient traditions associated with light have been incorporated into our holiday season, called Advent.
Like most Christian churches, the last Sunday of Advent is devoted to the Christmas story. Most churches focus on the story of Jesus’ birth found in Luke and made famous by the 1965 film A Charlie Brown Christmas. Because our theme is Lights, we focus instead on the birth story found at the end of Matthew 1 and the story of the wise men in Matthew 2. Our upper elementary and middle school kids also read short passages from the Qur’an and Tales of the Prophets, both of which refer to Jesus and his message as lights to the world. The Tales of the Prophets passage also suggests that the newborn baby Jesus could speak, something that does not occur in the Bible story, which provides a great opportunity to talk about why such differences might exist and what they might mean.
From the Qur’an:
And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him. We sent him the Gospel. Therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him, a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. (Surah 5 (Al-Maida), Verse 46)
And from the Tales of the Prophets:
Zacharias’ wife gave birth that very night to a male child, and Zacharias rejoiced over him.
He went to Mary but could not find her, wherefore he called for Joseph, and together they set out in search of her. They found her seated beneath a tree. He spoke to her, but she did not speak to him. Jesus, however, spoke and said, “O Joseph, I bring glad tidings that I have emerged from the darkness of the womb in to the light of the world. I have come to the children of Israel as a messenger.” Mary carried her child on her breast and looked down on the children of Israel.
(Tales of the Prophets, Chapter 86 (Jesus Son of Mary), excerpt from Section 8)
Advent is unique to the Christian liturgical calendar. It is intended to prepare Christians for the arrival of Jesus – his birth, his message, and his death on the cross. Through our theme of Lights, we encourage the kids to think about what Jesus’ life might have meant, and we provide them with one way of articulating what Jesus was about. Since they are created in the image of God, they also get to think about what their life might be about.
But Advent also provides us with an opportunity to recognize connections with other traditions. Not everyone agrees that the Dec. 25 date for Christmas was chosen because of other holidays celebrated on or near that date. Nevertheless, at this point in history, several traditions honor various aspects of light at this time of the year, and we’re happy to give our kids a chance to recognize that.
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
al-Kisai, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah. Tales of the Prophets (Qisas al-anbiya). Trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr. Chicago, IL: Great Books of the Islamic World, 1997. Print.
The New Jerusalem Bible. NY: Doubleday, 1985. Print.
Hanukkah Books for Kids (just a few of many)
Heiligman, Deborah. Holidays Around the World: Celebrate Hanukkah: With Light, Latkes, and Dreidels. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Children’s Books, 2008.
Moorman, Margaret. Light The Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. NY: Cartwheel Publishers, 1999.
Rosen, Michael J. (author) and Iwai, Melissa (illustrator). Chanukah Lights Everywhere. Boston: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2006.
Wikler, Madeline and Groner, Judyth. All About Hanukkah. MN: Kar-Ben Publishing, 1999.
Solstice Books for Kids
Edwards, Carolyn McVickar. The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2005.
Jackson, Ellen (author) and Ellis, Jan Davey (illustrator). The Winter Solstice. MN: Millbrook Press, 1997.