Two For One

Today is Thanksgiving, and also the first day of Chanukah.

This is the first time such an odd phenomenon has occurred since 1888, and it won’t happen again until the year 81056.

Owing to the “man bites dog” nature of this cosmic convergence, the American media have been steadily covering it since before the turning of the leaves.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the copy on the subject has centered upon the unbearably stupid and lazy neologism “Thanksgivukkah” and essentially left it at that.  We have merged the two events linguistically, but given nary a thought to what they have in common thematically.  That’s a shame, because the answer is, “More than you might think.”

Typically, of course, the Jewish festival of lights is tethered to Christmas on the cultural calendar, a tradition that has been the bane of Jewish children’s existence since time immemorial.

The Christmas-Chanukah conflation has always been problematic, insomuch as the two holidays are related in no way beyond their temporal proximity.  That the latter would come to be nearly as commercially visible in America as the former is entirely a function of culture:  Jewish kids would see their Christian friends getting presents and chocolate at the end of every December and wonder to their parents, “Why not us?”  And so we established Chanukah as the “Jewish Christmas” and that was that.

The quandary in assuming cultural parity between the two, as we have, lies in their relative significance to their respective faiths.  In point of fact, Chanukah is not half as important to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity, and was never intended to be observed as such.

(In Israel, where Christmas is no big deal, Chanukah is no big deal, either.)

On its own terms, Chanukah makes for a perfectly lovely and agreeable time, but its small charms have never really been given a chance to breathe amidst our society’s outsized seasonal hubbub.  Alongside Christmas, it’s a whimsical pink bicycle leaning up against a Sherman tank.

But connecting Chanukah to Thanksgiving?  Now you’ve got something.

As much as anything else, what both events signify is the paramount importance of religious liberty in the history of mankind.  Both celebrate a small group of renegades who succeeded in securing such freedoms for themselves, each in the face of overwhelming adversity.

The basis of the Chanukah story, as any Rugrats viewer well knows, is the successful rebellion by a Jewish rabble called the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire between 167 and 160 BC.  Under the reign of Antiochus IV, Judaism and its practices suddenly became outlawed in the kingdom after a long period of tolerance.

Not prepared to take this repressive state of affairs sitting down, the Maccabees proceeded to launch a brutal guerilla war against the empire that, despite their small numbers, they ultimately won:  At the struggle’s end, Jewish rituals were again allowed to be performed and the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which had fallen into disrepair, was rededicated as a symbol of the resilience of the Jewish people.

Thanksgiving, in its traditional telling here in the states, similarly concerns the exploits of a put-upon minority that desired to worship its own god in its own way and went to enormous lengths to ensure that it could.  The men and women we call the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts from Europe in 1620 in order to practice their particular form of Separatism that was frowned upon in their native land.

As with the Maccabees and their descendents, it is the Pilgrims’ religious and cultural (not to mention literal) survival that we commemorate on the fourth Thursday of every November.  Their fight for freedom served as a forerunner for all those that followed.

By no means is the analogizing between today’s twin occurrences airtight.  There is much that differentiates Thanksgiving from Chanukah—far more, indeed, than that which joins them together—and there is more that characterizes each than what I outlined above.

But the United States does not have an official day of recognition for the first amendment to our constitution, as it arguably should, considering that the amendment’s stipulations for free expression—including the freedom to worship unmolested—are so fundamental to our way of life.

Among our secular holidays, Thanksgiving probably comes closest to essaying this most noble role.  And of the major non-secular festivals that occupy the American calendar, Chanukah fits the bill as fittingly as any other.

That the two should fall (finally) on precisely the same day is a nice coincidence, and a marked improvement over the usual way of things during the holiday season.  It’s a shame it won’t happen again for another 79,043 years.

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