The santas who sunbathe on Sydney beaches, barbecuing their lunch on December 25th are revelling in the duality of the Christmas holiday. On the one hand it’s a universal holiday, celebrating the birth of the Christian messiah who was born for us all and so it’s perfectly appropriate for Australians (and their tourist visitors) to join in.
On the other hand contemporary Christmas is a consumer-driven winter solstice festival where readily available costumes commingle with the shades of Saturnalia — the Roman festival around Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). It embodies a specifically northern hemisphere hope for the short dark days of winter to soon get longer and lighter. A somewhat absurd hope on the antipodean sands.
Hanukkah, which normally falls within the orbit of Christmas normally adopts the universalist aspects of its bigger, younger brother. Kislev 25 is usually around December 25 and Jews place the emphasis on being a festival of light, of liberation and of presents. But when paired with the more local, national holiday of Thanksgiving, its parochial side comes out. And, rather than being the Jewish Christmas (swap reindeer and trees for candles and latkes) Hanukkah ends up being, though disguised by a plethora of mutually appropriate foods, the anti-Thanksgiving.
Because, though they both have their distractions, Hanukkah is about throwing off the yoke of occupation, and Thanksgiving is about instituting an occupation that became a genocidal colonial project.
Hanukkah means “dedication,” specifically the re-dedication of the desecrated temple in Jerusalem, but the real celebration is of the successful war of resistance against the occupying Seleucid Empire. Although the story of religious intolerance by the occupying “Greeks” is told and re-told as a reason that the Maccabees rose up against them, the people telling the story are the descendants of the people who waged war on them, so they have a vested interest in that angle. And they, themselves, were intolerant of the Hellenized Jews in their midst. One thing we can be fairly sure of is that if Judah, Mattathias and the rest of the zealots in the Maccabean army were to see how most American Jews live, at the heart of another empire, they would be ready for some more smiting.
So Hanukkah is about the overthrow of an occupation, but Thanksgiving is a celebration of collaboration: Squanto as Marshal Petain. The pilgrims giving thanks to the Native Americans were not seeking to rule over the Native Americans, merely seeking a haven from European religious intolerance. Of course, as the Addams Family Values points out, those pilgrims were the innocent forbears of the colonial invasions of Europe. And the thanks weren’t mutual, they were fairly and squarely those of the Europeans whose legacy is to stuff and eat a turkey not seek for either the natural justice due to the sole inhabitants of 15th century North America or legal remedy for those peoples whose treaties were broken by the government of the United States of America.
In both cases — either extolling fundamentalist religious resistance to occupation or revelling in the collaborative roots of colonialism — the celebrants are clearly uneasy about the underlying geopolitical events that give rise to the festival. So there’s a festival of triumph, but there’s also a cloak of justification — whether it is “God has blessed us with a miracle of light to show our righteousness,” or “Look we were welcomed into the New World by the locals.” But that’s the way history is told, by the victors.
But history has a harsh way of judging contingent success. Who will the victors be next time Hanukkah and Thanksgiving roll around together in 2070? Or next time they coincide for a whole day in 79,043 years time?
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.