Throughout the long history of the Jews up until the creation of Israel in 1948, only two events resulted in new holidays. Why is that?
I think the answer begins by noting the great asymmetry of the Torah calendar. All of its holidays occur within a little over six months, leaving the rest of the year completely empty. This is likely because the intense experience of the holidays of Tishrei is enough to keep us spiritually charged through the whole winter, until we get to Pesach.
Yet we know from our own experience how easily the inspiration of Tishrei dissipates. Picking up on this, the Rabbis were probably more than happy to receive a Divine cue to legislate holidays specifically during this long dry spell. One way to think of this is that Chanukah was designed as a booster shot of Sukkot; and Purim as an early mini-dose of Pesach.
From such a perspective, it is no coincidence that both Sukkot (including Shemini Atzeret) and Chanukah are our only eight-day holidays. The fact that the miracle of Chanukah should have lasted exactly eight days may have even been a more specific cue about the nature of this holiday. (The classic question of the Bet Yosef about the miracle only being seven days may even strengthen the notion that the Rabbis were reinforcing the connection between the two holidays, with Shemini Atzeret corresponding to the extra day of Chanukah that lacked an obvious miracle.) The Rabbis responded to this miracle with the saying of full Hallel for eight days, modeled uniquely after Sukkot.
Most important to the comparison of the two holidays is that Sukkot’s main theme is our internalization of God’s control. By dwelling in huts, we temper our attempts to protect ourselves from the environment. Coming at the end of several weeks of spiritual work, it is the final touch to give us a proper perspective for the longest uninterrupted period of work in the calendar.
Like Sukkot, Chanukah is also a period for the appreciation of Divine providence that occurs by seeing what happens when we expose ourselves to the dangers of the world. When the Chashmonaim began their rebellion against the Syrian Greeks, it was like sleeping in a sukkah. They did not have the type of manpower or weaponry to adequately wage war against one of the mightiest empires of the time. But like Sukkot, they were living in a state of bitachon, knowing that God is in charge.
The Spring holidays have a different focus: Even as we are the main actors in Sukkot and Chanukah, God is the main actor during Pesach and Purim. Hence the central aspect of those holidays is the creation of emunah through Divine revelation. At Pesach, God reveals Himself in a dramatic way to create the basis for our faith. It is a time of birth, a time of religious creation. Sukkot is the holiday of the mature adult, who now knows his God and already has a relationship with Him, whereas Pesach is the holiday of a little child being shown the way. After the hiatus of winter, the Jew’s faith needs to be reborn again. The process that begins at Pesach and culminates in the mature bitachon of Sukkot starts over.
At some point it became too hard for Jews to wait until Pesach. The Jews needed to get a sense of Divine intervention before this holiday. As a result, God intervened in Jewish history again with the Purim story, one month before the full display of Divine intervention known as Pesach.
When Jews could no longer maintain the bitachon of Sukkot through the entire winter, Hashem brought about a mini-Sukkot to keep us going through the rest of the winter. Even earlier than that, however, when Jews needed a reminder of God’s mastery over the world before they got to Pesach, God created a mini-Pesach in the middle of Adar.
Getting back to Chanukah, it is worthwhile to consciously remind ourselves about Sukkot – meaning to remind ourselves of the need to internalize God’s control over the world. In this way, we are reminded that we can not achieve anything of value by going against His will. In this way, we are reminded that our efforts are secondary – albeit necessary – in accomplishing any desirable end. And, finally, in this way, we are able to unlock the secret to simcha which so greatly pervades Sukkot and bring it into Chanukah. Keeping such a focus will not only allow us to enjoy Chanukah and the rest of the winter, it will allow us to live properly throughout the entire year.