It’s an amusing anomalous year in the Jewish calendar. Thanksgiving and Chanukah coincide for the first time in more than a generation — and they won’t coincide again for a very long time. (If you consider that the first night of Chanukah can fall at the end of Thanksgiving Day, the next time will be in 2070.) But some say the dates won’t exactly converge (Day One of Chanukah actually on Thanksgiving Day) for another 79,000 years.
Some folks are calling the hugely rare secular-Jewish calendrical bit of synergy Thanksganukah, others — Thanksgivukkah. But the American Jewish community is in frenzy of delight at the very idea! How did it happen?
The Jewish calendar works on a modified lunar calendar. (Modified because certain holidays cannot fall out of whack with their proper seasons — it would be strange to have Passover, the festival of spring, fall in…well, fall. A true lunar calendar would really mess up the seasonality of Jewish seasonal holidays, thus, a leap year is added to the calendar seven year of every nineteen. Don’t ask me how, but the ancient math works!)
This year, all the holidays were way too early for most Jews. The New Year fell on Labor Day weekend, and now Chanukah, the festival of lights, normally celebrated sometime in December has been thrown all the way back to November. That happens occasionally, and is usually followed by a calendar adjustment (the aforementioned leap month), when thing are put back into place.
What doesn’t happen is that Chanukah (the 25th of the month of Kislev) coincides with Thanksgiving (it is much more likely that — unfortunately — it often clashes with Christmas). Now, I don’t mind when Chanukah and Christmas coincide. They are both, as it were, festivals of light; however, the relative importance of each holiday to its religion is highly unbalanced: Chanukah is a minor holiday for Jews, and Christmas cannot be any more important a celebration to Christians.
But this year provides a unique opportunity to connect two already-bound holidays. The historical and religious synergy between Chanukah and Thanksgiving is undeniable.
It has nothing to do with food, or football games, or family get togethers. The bond is far more intrinsic and fascinating (at least to me). First a bit of history (sorry):
So. Chanukah celebrates the defeat of a small band of religious Jews (called the Maccabees) against a pretty insurmountable army of Syrian-Greeks and their rather nasty king Antiochus. He forbade Jews from religious practice, banning all rituals and demanding that Jews become Hellenists inside and out.
Ultimately, Antiochus trashed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, defiling it and making it unusable (even if the Jews could have access to it, which they couldn’t). In the process, the Jews missed celebrating the fall festival of Sukkot, and when they finally reclaimed the Temple, the Maccabees and their followers intended to finally (albeit a bit out of season) celebrate the week-long holiday.
Connection #1: The Pilgrims modeled their first Thanksgiving after the Biblical festival of Sukkot: the Jewish harvest festival (also called The Feast of Tabernacles). Chanukah=Sukkot, Thanksgiving=Sukkot. Therefore, Chanukah=Thanksgiving. I’m pretty sure the syllogism works. And, as an added bonus, it should be noted that both the Pilgrims and the Jews of the Maccabees time were fighting for the right to practice their religions in freedom. So, make that Connection #2!
Connection #3: Jewish liturgy has within it daily Thanksgiving prayers; they are recited three times each day (four on Saturday, and certain holidays, to be precise). During Chanukah, that section of the service, literally called “Thanksgiving,” and beginning with the words, “We give thanks to You (“Modim Anachnu Lach“) Jews add an additional prayer called “Al Hanissim” (“For the Miracles”) for Chanukah. In the prayer, we thank God for the miracle of Chanukah, as the pilgrims thanked God for the surviving their first year in the New World — and for the sustenance of their first harvest. So in a very literal sense, Chanukah and Thanksgiving are intrinsically connected — intertwined and bonded together — every year in true harmony.
So there are (at least) three great reasons to always connect Thanksgiving and Chanukah, and even more so in a rare occurrence like this when they fall so cozily together. So stuff your turkey (with latke — potato pancakes — stuffing if you dare), dust off your Turkey-shaped Chanukah menorah and enjoy the freakish, yet perfect union of two holidays.
What are your Thanksganukah/Thanksgivukkah ideas? Share them in the comments below. And Happy Thanksganukah.