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Thanksgivukkah: when two religious holidays collide

By J Brooks Spector 26 November 2013

A new holiday is about to be born in America, and even before it has occurred, it has been attracting considerable publicity. No, it’s not Frank Costanza’s famous (anti-Christmas alternative) “Festivus” of “Seinfeld” fame, nor Maulana Karenga’s “Kwanza”- designed to help African Americans find a solemnity in the Christmas season beyond all the rampant, crass commercialism. Those two have already become old hat - having actually found a place on the calendar in the minds of a growing number of people. No, this time around, it will be the celebration of “Thanksgivukkah”. Actually, this holiday did happen a few times before, way back in 1888, and after this year, it will come round yet again - but only after more than 78,000 years from now. J. BROOKS SPECTOR explains.

For the past several years, as Thanksgiving has come around on the fourth Thursday of November, the writer has used that holiday as an opportunity for a seasonal column to explore aspects of Americana for The Daily Maverick’s readers. Thanksgiving, of course, is that most American of holidays. It is a kind of secularised religious observance that commemorates a founding myth of American history, speaking to religious freedom and the escape from the Old World’s oppression and on to a community’s rebirth in the New World.

Over time, it has become an event where every American, save for those who are really serious vegetarians, partakes in the sacred meal of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, baked sweet potatoes, corn bread, pumpkin pie, and all the other traditional trimmings. Just like that famous Norman Rockwell illustration with the perfectly roast turkey about to be carved, the holiday is supposed to celebrate the values said to underpin American exceptionalism – a kind of national gustatory prayer – but increasingly without any formal religious textures for most people.

American political humourist Art Buchwald (a man who had spent the post-World War II years working for the International Herald Tribune in Paris) had famously written about the holiday, “On the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.”

Increasingly, Thanksgiving has also become a day to enjoy the meal, yes, but also to spend hours in front of the family television to watch the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, live from New York City, and then a whole afternoon’s run of American football games. And then, in the newest wrinkle, it is off to line up in front of those “big box” stores for “Black Friday” – the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season, with special deals on especially favoured items for the earliest customers in line.

This year, however, Thanksgiving overlaps with the First Day of Hanukkah, the Jewish “Festival of Lights.” The last time this happened was 1888 and the next occurrence is calculated to be 79,043 years from now. The Jewish religious calendar is a version of the lunar calendar (similar in some ways to the Islamic calendar) but in order to keep it in sync with the 365-day solar calendar, an entire extra month is inserted into the calendar, seven of every nineteen years, to keep the various holidays aligned to their respective seasonal aspects. Unlike the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, or the three seasonal festivals of Succoth, Shavuot and Passover, Hanukkah entered the Jewish holiday calendar much later – evolving out of the Judean revolution against Hellenistic Seleucid Syria (a successor state to Alexander’s empire) in the second century BC.

Largely until the twentieth century, Hanukkah was a relatively modest family celebration, among a still-largely unassimilated, recent immigrant community, featuring an eight-branched Menorah candelabra, small gift exchanges, games, songs and the consumption of potato latkes (a sort of rosti-like preparation). But as American Jewry has increasingly entered the national mainstream, Hanukkah’s family and communal status has grown in importance, especially as it presented an alternative to the all-pervasive – and increasingly commercial – presence of Christmas.

Rabbi Robert Jacobs, an American rabbi serving in South African synagogue, notes, “Chanukah has moved into a top position among Jewish holiday observances in the past 50-100 years. Eight consecutive nights of gifts, songs, family at table and play are understandably attractive.” An increasingly diversity-conscious nation has added Menorahs to public installations of Christmas decorations, and bi-religious families now wrestle with the conundrum of how best to celebrate “Chrismukkah”, using their dual-purpose, decorated tree, featuring green and red, along with blue and white decorations.

As a result, this unusual confluence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving has given rise to both interesting opportunities and not inconsiderable angst among some American Jews. How to separate – or combine – the two celebrations; how to merge, somehow, the traditional festive foods; how to somehow merge the football games with Hanukkah songs and the traditional dreidl spinning top game; and even how to bring together the very different source sagas have all become issues.

However, Saul Rube, the religious studies dean at a leading Jewish day school in the US, sees real positives for this fortuitous overlap. Rube argues that the sudden surge of genial combinations of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah icons (such as turkeys mixed with candles; dreidls together with those iconic Pilgrim hats in class decorations) in many Jewish institutions this year is underscoring a deeper, subtle bond between the two holidays.

Rube explains that the Talmud, the encyclopaedia that is a cornerstone Jewish religious-legal thought, describes Hanukkah as a “holiday of thanksgiving. The fact that you could meld our Jewish culture and the popular culture is such a wonderful opportunity, when so many times in December observant families feel… torn. They want to be part of that whole holiday season.” In fact, Thanksgiving has long been something a favourite for American Jews from the secular celebratory calendar cycle.

As a result, this year, American newspapers and magazines are suddenly blossoming with stories offering recommendations for these conundrums. In addition, they are also printing the anxiety-ridden confessions of families worrying about how they will cope with the Hanukkah gift giving that would ordinarily have taken place in the midst of the December shopping frenzy that begins after Thanksgiving Day itself.

Responding to this growing conversation, Time magazine, for example, published a set of suggestions for dealing with the overlap, noting that both celebrations centre on food. “Yes, people eat hot dogs on the Fourth of July and sip eggnog on Christmas Eve, but there is no holiday on the American calendar that is more about food than Thanksgiving. Hanukkah, a time to eat latkes and brisket, kugel and challah, is also celebrated by putting delicious things in bellies. ‘All Jewish holidays are about food,’ says Dana Gitell, the Bostonian credited with coining Thanksgivukkah. ‘And that’s one of the reasons why American Jews love Thanksgiving so much. These are both feasts.’ ”

Time adds that both holidays originate with a religious question. Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of holy oil that lasted eight times as long as expected after the Temple in Jerusalem had been cleansed and re-consecrated while “Thanksgiving commemorates a harvest feast among Indians and Pilgrims that happened almost 400 years ago. While that might seem secular, those Pilgrims never would have been breaking bread with those Indians if they hadn’t first broken from the Church of England – and fled Europe in search of religious freedom.”

The magazine explains further that both events are central to people who sought refuge in America. It notes that “Rabbi Mishael Zion, co-director of the Bronfman Fellowships, points out that Hanukkah [at least in its contemporary guise] and Thanksgiving were both started by people who found a haven in America and flourished there. ‘Thanksgiving really celebrates not so much America the country, but America the idea,’ says Zion. ‘It’s a place of refuge. It’s also a place of opportunity and mobility and success.’”

And of course both are obviously about being thankful and provide a reason to take that trip back home to family and friends. Thanksgiving is in fact the single busiest travel holiday in America – more so than even the Christmas period.

Interestingly, historians have also pointed to another, earlier version of the double-barrelled holiday, dating from the American Revolutionary War period. Following the American victory over the British at Saratoga, New York in the autumn of 1777, the Continental Congress, at the behest of General Washington, had issued a proclamation to encourage the celebration of a special day of thanksgiving on December 18th, 1777. The Continental Congress declared subsequent days of thanksgiving in December throughout the Revolutionary War. (Of course, the Jewish community in the Thirteen Colonies numbered only a few thousand individuals, mostly in the nascent country’s largest towns like New York City, Baltimore, and Philadelphia – and very few of those made much of a fuss about Hanukkah back then.)

The Continental Congress continued to declare a yearly celebration of Thanksgiving in December throughout the War, and during the next five years, that holiday overlapped with the Hanukkah period, including the day of thanksgiving designated to celebrate the British troops’ surrender at Yorktown, Virginia that ended the fighting. The Congress had phrased that proclamation with the words, “it hath pleased the supreme Disposer of all Events…remarkably to assist and support the United States of America in their important struggle for liberty, against the long continued efforts of a powerful nation.”

Or, as Rabbi Jacobs would wish all those celebrating this unusual overlapping holiday in America, complete with the football games and the inevitable overindulgence at the table, “Chag orim v’simchah” – best wishes for a festival of light and joy. DM

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Photo: Richard Huisinga, Chairman of the National Turkey Federation, holds on to the 2011 Thanksgiving Turkey, Liberty, during a Turkey Pardoning ceremony attended by U.S. President Barack Obama on the North Portico of the White House in Washington November 23, 2011. Since 1989 every U.S. President has pardoned the Thanksgiving Turkey. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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