When I first heard that the celebration of Chanukah and Thanksgiving coincided this year, I wondered at it. I couldn’t recall it ever happening before. In my mind—in my lifetime— Chanukah has been a December holiday, and when one news outlet reported that the two hadn’t shared the same calendar dates since tri-cornered hats were in vogue, I was even more curious, and when another outlet said the intersection of the two holidays wouldn’t happen again for 78,000 years, I was intrigued.
And that required satisfaction. So I visited several websites. I’m not Jewish and don’t have any scholarship in its practices, but my sleuthing was satisfying and I discovered a few things that I knew and made sense, and a few more things that I didn’t know that enriched the picture.
We all learned that the Plymouth colonials celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621. After a year of sickness and starvation, a successful harvest prompted a true English festival with merrymaking and feasting combined with the Puritanical custom of prayer and feasting. The whole of it was a joyous expression of gratitude to God. Their companions, the Wampanoag, found this reasonable, since they routinely gave thanks for the Creator’s gifts, eg., for good harvests, fortuitous planting seasons, military victories, the birth of a child.
President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863 and determined that it should take place on the last Thursday in November each year. FDR later changed that to the third Thursday in November in deference to the retail markets. It seemed statistics showed the majority of the populace didn’t begin Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving (sound familiar?) and that celebrating Thanksgiving a week to ten days earlier than the last Thursday in the month would lengthen the shopping period and hence help retailers.
In either declaration, both presidents used the Gregorian calendar.
Chanukah, however, was declared nearly 2,200 years ago, and follows the Hebrew calendar, which, I’ve learned, has a 19-year cycle.
Given the cyclical nature of the two calendars, it seems likely that the two holidays must coincide some time, especially as Chanukah is an eight-day celebration. There’s a really wonderful explanation of the overlaps here. It’s succinct and thorough and far clearer than any I could make.
What I do know about Chanukah is that the holiday celebrates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire, and “the Festival of Lights,” as Chanukah’s also known, centers around the miraculous lighting of the Temple’s Torah for eight nights when only one night’s precious oil was available.
So, until the next intersection of Thanksgiving and Chanukah, let’s celebrate this one. Whatever your point of view, whether you light a candelabra or a menurkey, there are plenty of commonalities. Celebrate family, faith, freedom, food, and each other.