If you type the words, “Thanksgiving and,” into Google right now, the first item you’ll see is “Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.”
This year, the first night of Hanukkah falls on the night before Thanksgiving, making Thanksgiving the first full day of the Jewish Festival of Lights. Unlike the longer, solar Gregorian calendar, the Jewish calendar is purely lunar. In order to insure that holidays fall during the seasons with which they’re associated, the ancient rabbis devised a system of leap years, using a set pattern to add an additional month to the year every few years.
This means that Jewish dates — and the events that fall on them — fluctuate, relative to their Gregorian counterparts. The current Jewish year, 5774, is one of those leap years, but until the leap month of Adar II starts on the evening of March 1 (Jewish days start and end at sundown), the way the two calendars intersect has led to Jewish holidays falling unusually “early” on the Gregorian calendar this year.
One curiosity produced by this is the intersection of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah — a convergence that Internet research says has only happened once before, in 1888, and will next be seen in the years 2070, 2165, and then 76,695.
This unusual combination has become a pop culture phenomenon over the last few months. In addition to a piece on the Stephen Colbert show, there are many stories online about the convergence in general, such as articles about sweet potato latkes and other holiday cuisine combinations, and links to buy ‘Thanksgivukkah’ merchandise. Some of this merchandise can be found on the Facebook page celebrating the dual “holiday.”
Clearly, the intersection of one of America’s most-cherished holidays with one of Judaism’s most well-known ones has struck a chord with many.
Thanksgiving, of course, is special to nearly all Americans. It is the secular American holiday that most resembles a religious one. As a day that highlights gratitude, a spiritual value that transcends religious boundaries, it is universally accessible and meaningful to Americans of every ethnic and religious background.
Combined with the traditional emphases on food and family, Thanksgiving is a sacred occasion in which everyone can participate, and which everyone feels comfortable and familiar with. It’s the rare moment when just about all of us feel at home.
For Jews, Hanukkah gives us a way to metaphorically feel at home, during the season when our status as a minority group is most strongly felt. American popular culture’s emphasis on Christmas during the month of December is obviously very extensive; for groups that don’t celebrate Christmas, this emphasis can be overwhelming.
For most of Jewish history, Hanukkah was not a major holiday; there are no days of rest during the festival, as there are during more significant holidays, and the story on which it is based does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. However, primarily in response to the prevalence of Christmas, Hanukkah has become an entry point, and a touchstone, for Jews during the winter holiday season.
The story of the small miracle of candle lighting oil lasting longer than expected, combined with that of a small fighting force defeating occupying invaders, provides comfort and meaning for today’s Jews — as, of course, does the very modern tradition of receiving a present on each night of the holiday.
When seen in this light, Hanukkah gives Jews the opportunity to feel good about who we’ve been, who we are, what we can do, and what can happen to us. In some ways, it’s an opportunity for Jews to give thanks both for the miracles of our persistence, and of our existence.
When seen through this lens, the intersection of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah seems like a natural combination. It’s the meeting of two different occasions when we reflect on the best aspects of being human.