Thanksgiving and Chanukah Together

Thanksgiving and Chanukah Together

© David Burton 2013



     “The arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans brought new Thanksgiving traditions to the American scene. Today’s national Thanksgiving celebration is a blend of two traditions: the New England custom of rejoicing after a successful harvest, based on ancient English harvest festivals; and the Puritan Thanksgiving, a solemn religious observance combining prayer and feasting. - - - Simultaneously instituted in Plymouth, Connecticut and Massachusetts, Thanksgiving became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century and it was proclaimed each autumn by the individual Colonies.
     "- - - The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777. A somber event, it specifically recommended ‘that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.’ - - - Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed national Thanksgivings, but the custom fell out of use by 1815, after which the celebration of the holiday was limited to individual state observances. By the 1850s, almost every state and territory celebrated Thanksgiving.
     "- - - In 1863, President Lincoln . . . declared two national Thanksgivings that year, one for August 6 celebrating the victory at Gettysburg and a second for the last Thursday in November. - - - Neither Lincoln nor his successors, however, made the holiday a fixed annual event. A President still had to proclaim Thanksgiving each year, and the last Thursday in November became the customary date. In a controversial move, Franklin Delano Roosevelt lengthened the Christmas shopping season by declaring Thanksgiving for the next-to-the-last Thursday in November. Two years later, in 1941, Congress responded by permanently establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday in the month. [Emphasis mine]
     "- - - The classic Thanksgiving menu of turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and root vegetables is based on New England fall harvests. In the 19th century, as the holiday spread across the country, local cooks modified the menu both by choice (“this is what we like to eat”) and by necessity (“this is what we have to eat”). Today, many Americans delight in giving regional produce, recipes and seasonings a place on the Thanksgiving table.
     "- - - If there is one day each year when food and family take center stage, it is Thanksgiving. It is a holiday about “going home” with all the emotional content those two words imply. The Sunday following Thanksgiving is always the busiest travel day of the year in the United States. Each day of the long Thanksgiving weekend, more than 10 million people take to the skies. Another 40 million Americans drive 100 miles or more to have Thanksgiving dinner. And the nation’s railways teem with travelers going home for the holiday. - - - Thanksgiving is the abiding National memory of a moment in Plymouth, nearly 400 years ago, when two distinct cultures, on the brink of profound and irrevocable change, shared an autumn feast.” (Ref. 1)

     One firsthand report about the first Thanksgiving is as follows:

     “And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
         --- Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986. p 82


     Chanukah, also known as the festival of lights, is an 8-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Chanukah has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of the Jewish religion. The story of Chanukah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea, but allowed the people under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy.
     More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism), the forerunners of the Pharisees. They joined forces in a revolt which succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
     According to tradition, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days. An eight day festival was then declared to commemorate this miracle.
     Chanukah is not a very important religious holiday. The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a Chanukiah. The Chanukiah holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shamash (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shamash candle is lit and blessings are recited. The first candle is then lit with the shamash candle, and the shamash candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour. Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because Jews pay honor to the newer thing first).[2]

     “It is traditional to eat fried foods on this holiday, because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes or ‘potato pancakes. - - Gift-giving {historically was} not a traditional part of the holiday - - - The only traditional gift of the holiday {has been} “gelt,” small amounts of money. - - The custom arose to give gifts of money during Chanukah so that someone who needs extra money for Chanukah candles can receive it in the form of ‘Chanukah Gelt.’ - - - Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. A dreidel is marked with the following four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin. On Israeli dreidels, there is no Shin but rather a Peh, which stands for Po, meaning here.
     This supposedly stands for the Hebrew phrase “nes gadol hayah sham,” a great miracle happened there (here, in Israel). Actually, it stands for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which is the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game - - - {in one variation,} everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. On Nun, nothing happens; on Gimmel - - - you get the whole pot; on Heh, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one {coin} in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one {coin} in.” (Ref. 2 ]


     This year, 2013, the holidays of Thanksgiving and Chanukah coincide, with the first day of the Jewish celebration of Chanukah falling on the traditional American holiday of Thanksgiving. This is the second (and probably the last) time the two have overlapped since Thanksgiving became a federal holiday.
     The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar. Because of the roughly eleven-day difference between twelve lunar months and one solar year, the length of the Hebrew calendar year varies in a repeating 19-year cycle of 235 lunar months, with a month added according to defined rules every two or three years, for a total of seven times per 19 years. In other words, in order to guarantee that Hebrew holidays always fall in the appropriate season, the Jewish calendar is periodically adjusted to bring it into agreement with the solar calendar. This is the reason that a whole month is added to the Jewish calendar every two or three years. While our common calendar has a leap year with an added day once every 4 years, the Jewish calendar adds a whole month every 2 or 3 years.
     Originally, the calendar was determined on a monthly basis by a court in Israel, but when Judaism became more decentralized, the calendar became fixed. It has been mathematically fixed for over a thousand years. The calendar’s synchronization with the solar year is not perfect. The calendar is drifting forward with respect to the solar cycle at a rate of four days every 1,000 years. Right now, the earliest that the first day of Hanukkah can fall is November 28 – and this is occurring this year, 2013. Coincidentally, this is also the latest that Thanksgiving can fall.

     Thanksgiving is now set as the fourth Thursday in November, meaning the latest it can be is November 28th. November 28th is also the earliest that the 1st day of Chanukah can occur. The Jewish calendar repeats on a 19 year cycle, and Thanksgiving repeats on a 7 year cycle. You would therefore expect them to coincide roughly every 19x7 = 133 years. Looking back, this is approximately correct – the last time it would have happened was 1861. However, Thanksgiving was only formally established by President Lincoln in 1863. So, it has never happened before. Well, Chanukah and Thanksgiving actually did coincide once before.
     Thanksgiving is now set to be the fourth Thursday in November. However, it originally was set to be the LAST Thursday in November. This changed in 1942. So, if you look back to the year 1888, when Thanksgiving took place on the last Thursday in November, you will find that Thanksgiving and Chanukah coincided that year.
     Will Chanukah and Thanksgiving coincide again after 2013? Not in our lifetime and maybe never again! The Jewish calendar is very slowly getting out of sync with the solar calendar, at a rate of 4 days per 1000 years. This means that while presently Chanukah can be as early as November 28, over the years the calendar will drift forward, such that the earliest Chanukah can be is November 29. The last time Chanukah falls on November 28 will be the year 2146, which happens to be a Monday. Therefore, 2013 is the only time Chanukkah will ever overlap with Thanksgiving. But Jewish law requires the holidays to fall in their proper season, meaning that the calendar will have to be corrected at some point in the future to prevent Passover from slipping into the summer.
     Of course, if the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way, then it will slowly move forward through the Gregorian calendar, until it loops all the way back to where it is now. So, Chanukah will again fall on Thursday, November 28th . . . in the year 79811! We would therefore not get another chance at turkey latkes for at least 60,000 years.
     There is one technicality that one can interpret as meaning Thanksgiving and Chanukah will overlap in the “near” future. A "day" in the Jewish calendar actually starts at sunset the night before. This leads to an inherent ambiguity when talking about Jewish calendar days overlapping Gregorian calendar days, because each Jewish calendar day actually starts on the previous Gregorian calendar day. So this year, when the first day of Chanukah falls on Thanksgiving, candles will be lit for the first NIGHT of Hanukkah the night BEFORE Thanksgiving. Therefore, when the first day of Chanukah falls the day after Thanksgiving, the first Chanukah candles are lit the night of Thanksgiving and this will happen two more times, in 2070 and 2165.
         --- From an article by Jonathan Mizrahi - Monday, January 14, 2013

     This year, there are wonderful opportunities for history and tradition to connect on this unique occasion. Consider the following thoughts:

"As we gather around this Thanksgiving and Chanukah table, old stories and traditions connect on this unique occasion. At Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle of oil lasting eight nights—of survival with a sparse resource, and the value of risk-taking against all odds. At Thanksgiving, we focus on abundance and the joy of sharing the blessings of life together. Yet there are dark themes to each holiday. We remember the hardships our ancestors endured, driven by their faiths and values so that we might live on to remember them. Each night that we light the Chanukah candles rekindles our hope for a world in which all people share an equal portion of our blessings."

     In 1790, George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island:
"Happily, the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support….May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

     In 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following about our Turkey-Day bird to his daughter:
"The turkey is in comparison [to the Bald Eagle] a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

     Anna Quinlen has written:
"Coming to America has always been hard... It is foolish to forget where you come from, and that in the case of the United States, is almost always somewhere. The true authentic American is a pilgrim with a small 'p,' armed with little more than the phrase 'I wish....'”

  1. Thanksgiving History, Plimoth Plantation, Accessed 14 November 2013.
  2. Jewish Holidays: Hannukah - Chanukah, Jewish Virtual Library, Accessed 14 November 2013.

  21 November 2013 {Article 185; Whatever_33}    
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