The Jewish festival of Hanukah, which starts tomorrow night, is only famous because it falls round about the same time as Christmas. In religious terms it’s a minor festival; in 21st century cultural terms it is possibly the best known of Jewish holidays.
Hanukah celebrates a successful revolt in 165 BC by a bunch of guerrillas led by Judah ‘the Hammer’ against the Greek empire. Judah wrests back control of Jerusalem and rededicates the Jewish temple, which the Greeks had defiled.
That’s the history. About 500 years after the event a Jewish legend emerged that, even though the rebels were only able to find a smidgeon of oil in the temple, the holy lamps miraculously burned for a full eight days, until fresh oil could be procured.
It’s not an original story, Elisha did something similar with oil several centuries before. But it’s a nice story. Because of it Jews everywhere light candles for eight days in the dark of winter, brightening the place up. The legend of the oil turns the sombre commemoration of a military victory into a cheerful occasion. And, since Hannukah roughly coincides with Christmas, Jewish kids can get presents like everyone else. It’s a nice story. But it ain’t history.
In his magnum opus, Jerusalem- The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore, turns the miracle into history: “In the ravaged city there was a shortage of oil to light the candelabra in the Temple, but somehow the candles never went out.” Fair enough, it’s a nice story, Jerusalem is popular history not a text book, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of embellishment.
Or is there? What if, a few hundred years from now, a popular historian were to write: “in 21st century England while people slept in their beds on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus and his reindeer flew from house to house delivering presents.” If we were still around when he wrote it, we’d try to set the record straight, wouldn’t we?
In his preface Montefiore warns us that in the city of Jerusalem “truth is much less important than the myth.” His aim is to write a “history in its broadest sense, for general readers.” And this really sums up the popular historian’s dilemma. How to inform and entertain at the same time, without straying too far from the facts.
It’s not a dilemma that an academic historian has. She assembles facts, as she understands them. She knows that others might disagree with her, or that contradictory evidence might emerge in the future, but that’s OK; for her that’s what history is all about.
A writer of historical fiction doesn’t have the dilemma either. When history and fiction collide, we give precedence to the story we are telling. We are writing historical fiction, not speculative history.
Not so with popular history. Every fact requires a judgement call. You don’t want to write dry history. You’re not creating a work of fiction. You do want to engage, stimulate and inform your reader. You don’t want to misrepresent. Writing popular history is tough.
Nearly all religious festivals are based on popular history. There is rarely enough archaeological or primary evidence to substantiate the narratives they are built on. But that doesn’t matter. A good festival is one with a unique mix of narrative, emotion and spiritual inspiration. It doesn’t really matter if Santa lights a candelbra on your roof, or the Temple was dedicated with everlasting reindeer. What matter is that however we choose to impart history we do so in a way that engages and informs. Even if sometimes the legends become fact,