If you’re one of the 9 million American adults who in any way identifies as Jewish (according to the recent Pew survey this includes anyone who has laughed at an episode of “Seinfeld” or sent back a meal at a restaurant), then you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Halley’s comet of holidays, the Y2K of yuletides: Thanksgivukkah™©®
Everyone seems to be talking about the rare convergence of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the American celebration of Thanksgiving, which, for the first time since 1888 and the last time for over 70,000 years, will occur simultaneously during the first day/second night of Hanukkah (depending on how long it takes before your turkey is done).
But while you may learn elsewhere how to make pecan pie rugelach or buy a Kickstarted turkey-shaped menorah, there’s a deeper connection to be made between these seemingly disparate celebrations. Let’s begin with the first Hanukkah: We read in the second Book of Maccabees, a late second century BCE text written (ironically?) in Greek to encourage the Jews of the Alexandrian diaspora to celebrate the Jewish victory against the Greeks which occurred forty years earlier:
Maccabeus with his men, led by the Eternal, recovered the Temple and the city of Jerusalem…The sanctuary was purified on the twenty fifth day of Kislev…This joyful celebration lasted for eight days; it was like the Thanksgiving festival of Sukkot, for they recalled how only a short time before they had observed that holiday while living like animals in the mountains, and so they carried palm fronds and citrons, and chanted hymns of Thanksgiving to God who had so triumphantly led them to the purification of God’s Temple. A measure was passed by the public assembly that the entire Jewish people should observe these days every year.
So, according to II Maccabees, since Jews were too busy fighting a guerrilla war during the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, they made up for it with a “Sukkot in December” two months later, thereby creating a second eight-day holiday — this time giving thanks for a military success instead of an agricultural one. Therefore, the first Hanukkah was actually a delayed Thanksgiving, and so also technically the first Thanksgivukkah!
Let’s jump ahead about 2,000 years, to the time of the American Revolution. After a critical victory over the British at Saratoga in the fall of 1777, the Continental Congress encouraged the colonies to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving, which all thirteen colonies did, at the behest of General George Washington, on December 18th, 1777.