I often get this question:
Q. Wasn’t Chanukah created in imitation of the Gentile winter candle-lighting festival?
The answer is a most emphatic NO.
I did quite a lot of research about this, and I discovered that in the Middle East there were no cultures that had any winter festival of lights. Way up north, where the winter days are very short, some societies had festivals during which they lit ritual fires to in hopes that the daylight would return. But in the Middle East the winter days are not all that short. Thus, there were actually no such holidays in or near Israel at all. So there was no one to imitate.
The Zoroastrians did have a fire ritual, though it did not resemble Chanukah in any way.
The Talmud mentions that there was a Persian (or Parthian) pagan festival that sometimes coincided with Chanukah. Their law was that no one was allowed to light any lights at all at home during that festival. Lights were allowed only in their religious temples. Anyone who lit a light in their own home would be killed. It therefore makes no sense to assert that the Jews began to light candles in their own homes in imitation of the pagans. (And would they have risked their own lives to do it as well?)
Generally, the Jewish custom was to light the Chanukah Menorah at the window, to advertise to the world about the miracle that took place during Chanukah. (This is not obligatory, but a good thing to do.) But since during that pagan festival people were forbidden to have lights in their homes, it was dangerous for Jews to light their Menorahs in the windows. The later Mishnaic Rabbis therefore taught that when Chanukah coincides with the pagan holiday it is permitted to light the Chanukah secretly, where only the family can see it. (It was never really obligatory to put the Menorah in the window anyway.)
What is hard to understand is why people insist that Chanukah (or any Jewish Law) came from a Gentile festival. The Prophets and Rabbis, ever since the beginning of Judaism, from Moses to the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis today, have vociferously condemned any borrowing of practices from Gentiles.
The Torah is full of such warnings. Moses warns us not to even study the practices of Gentiles:
Be careful, and do not be caught in the trap … of studying their religions, wondering “How do they worship their gods? Maybe I can do the same?” Do not imitate their practices when worshiping Hashem, because they do all the things that Hashem hates. Some of them even pass their children through fire for their gods!
— Deuteronomy 12:30
So we see that imitating the practices of the Gentiles even for worshiping Hashem is forbidden. We see further that even imitating a custom of the Gentiles is forbidden, as explicitly stated in Leviticus 18:3.
The Prophet Zephaniah even condemned those who wear the clothing of the people of another religion!
At various times throughout Jewish history we find Jews or groups of Jews who assumed some Gentile practices, and at each occurrence we find that the Prophets or Rabbis aroused the public to eradicate those practices. The Rabbis never allowed any foreign practices in Judaism.
Yes, as some neo-pagans insist, Jews at times have worshiped a goddess. That is, some Jews worshiped a goddess, and they were severely punished for it. The Rabbis and Prophets railed against them, and in earlier days the Jewish people rose up in warfare against the sinners. That surely does not make goddess-worship a Jewish practice. It never was, and it never will be.
The long and the short of it is, the Rabbis never allowed Jews to adopt Gentile religious practices. How can anyone entertain the notion that the Rabbis would institute an entire Holiday based on a Gentile Holiday? Suddenly the Rabbis stopped caring about Jewish Law? Suddenly the Rabbis had no desire to utter one word of protest against a terrible deviation from Judaism performed by the masses? The thought is ridiculous.
It’s also ridiculous to assume that suddenly all Jews spontaneously decided to adopt a foreign holiday and the Rabbis not only did not protest, but supposedly adopted it as well and taught everyone else to observe the holiday as well! It makes no sense at all.
But probably most significant of all is the fact that the primary message of Chanukah is that we should reject Gentile influences. The revolt of the Macabees began when a Syrian-Greek governor forced a Jewish man to bow down to an idol. The Macabeean Rabbis also fought (and I mean literally fought — with swords, spears and arrows) against the Jewish Hellenizers, Jews who were trying to bring Greek influences into Jewish life.
The Rabbis, in instituting Chanukah, spoke of the “Light of the Torah,” verses the “darkness of the pagan beliefs.”
Thus, Chanukah was specifically about not assuming non-Jewish beliefs, ideas and practices. It makes no sense to claim that the Rabbis took a Gentile holiday and made it into a Jewish Holiday as a statement against borrowing non-Jewish practices.
I hope this puts the matter to rest.