The funny thing to Rabbi Jonathan Freirich is that this year’s bizarre holiday coincidence – dubbed Thanksgivukkah – is more natural than what usually happens.
Thanksgiving this year falls on the first full day of Hanukkah.
That hasn’t happened since before Lincoln made Thanksgiving a federal holiday (1863), and it won’t happen again in our lifetimes – unless you’re planning to live another 79,043 or so years. (That’s according to complicated math, calculating the lunar cycle and predicting the seasonal calendar adjustments required by Jewish law.)
Hanukkah usually gets conflated with Christmas in the American mind, since it typically falls closer to that holiday. But Hanukkah fits much better with Thanksgiving, says Freirich, an associate rabbi at Temple Beth El.
“There is strong ritual. There is an offering of gratitude that’s expected, but how we do it is not strict. There’s the notion that we have a theme, and the theme gets applied as our family does it” – in other words, “no performance anxiety!”
Christmas and Passover can feel stressful, with people desperate to honor generations-worth of tradition and formalities. This holiday “is compelling for all the right reasons,” he says. “It is light. It is not filled with burdens and obligations. ... We can have potato latkes, which do not not go with turkey. We can even make sweet potato latkes, and it’s fine. ...
“It’s a beautiful opportunity.”
Rabbi Yossi Groner of Charlotte’s Ohr HaTorah, an Orthodox Jewish congregation, agrees. Thanksgiving is “very significant in our lives: The recognition that everything comes from God’s blessing.” That fits, he says, beautifully with Hanukkah.
Both days celebrate, at their contemporary core and in their historical roots, religious freedom as well as thankfulness.
What’s now generally deemed the first capital-T Thanksgiving (both native Americans and Europeans routinely held thanksgivings for all sorts of reasons) happened in 1621, in what’s now roughly southeastern Massachusetts, with the native Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. The latter were English, seeking freedom from the Church of England. and finding it, through hardship, in this New World.
Little-known fact: Thanksgiving wasn’t a huge deal from the get-go. It was celebrated sporadically, and colony-by-colony. And that whole Pilgrim focus for Thanksgiving didn’t come into vogue until 1900 or so, according to Smithsonian-affiliated Plimouth Plantation’s website.
Hanukkah commemorates both a military victory – a tiny group of Jews defeating a larger Greek-Syrian army in 165 B.C.E. – and a resource miracle: When the winners rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, showing their recaptured ability to worship freely, there was only enough oil to light the temple’s eternal lamp for one day. Yet it burned for eight, time enough to resupply.
Fairly well-known fact: Hanukkah isn’t considered a huge deal in the Jewish faith. “The story in our tradition is very, very small,” says Freirich.
As Rabbi Groner points out, the Jewish faith doesn’t celebrate the military victory with parades and the like; it chooses to focus on the light. Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights, and lasts eight days, with a candle lit for each of the eight on the candelabra known as a menorah.
That’s where the mashups start: A New York 9-year-old invented the “menurkey,” a turkey-shaped menorah for this year’s event. There’s the exclamation “Gobble tov!” (“Mazel tov” means “congratulations” or “good luck.”)
And there are a few adjustments that have to be made. Groner’s congregation usually does a big event the first night of Hanukkah, giving away toys, clothing and food to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations around town. “It’s an expression of thanksgiving by sharing with others,” he says, and it was moved to Monday night.
“Some events have to be done a little later – but that’s why we have eight nights of Hanukkah.”
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