What do you get when you cross Chanukah with Thanksgiving? Sounds like the beginning of a Borscht Belt joke, I know, but it’s not only happening this year, the convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving is actually a once-in-a-lifetime event, which, if celebrated well, is also an event that can change your life forever.
Chanukah and Thanksgiving coincide this year for the first time since 1888, and will apparently not do so again for thousands of years. Of course this coincidence could simply be an opportunity for word play as in the new holiday names including: Thanksgivukah and Thanksukah. It could be a marketing bonanza for turkey-shaped menorahs known as Menurkeys, and T-shirts emblazoned with Drumstick-munching Maccabees.
The Chanukah-Thanksgiving mash-up has given rise to waves of recipes for everything from latke-stuffed birds, to pumpkin-stuffed doughnuts, and that’s all great. But it’s also a remarkable opportunity to enhance our lives, and the lives of those around us, by remembering and celebrating a message common to both holidays and central to nurturing both better relationships and a better world. The message? That it’s never too late to say thank you.
According to II Maccabees 10:6-8, the first Chanukah was in fact the celebration of Sukkot, which was not observed months earlier, in its regularly scheduled time slot as they say on TV, because of the war being fought in the land of Israel. Sukkot, like most fall holidays, including Thanksgiving, celebrates the joyful completion of successful harvests, the hope that we receive what we need to make more good things happen in the future, and the ability to say thank you for the good things in our lives — past, present and future.
But biblical festivals, as the Hebrew word mo’ed indicates, are not simply sacred times, they are also celebrations meant to occur at very specific times. So what were they thinking when they decided to celebrate the paradigmatic fall festival during the winter? How could that work?
In fact, celebrating Sukkot in the winter worked precisely because it is never too late to say thank you. Those ancient Maccabees knew that while there may be more expected times to say thank you, it is never the wrong time to express gratitude for what is good in our lives, to those responsible for it, and to celebrate having received it.
So often, some great thing happens to us and we want to say thank you, but somehow it doesn’t happen. It’s not that we are ungrateful; it’s just that the moment when it felt like the perfect time to say thank you passed, and having passed, we don’t know quite what to do. Here’s where the history of Chanukah and the Thanksgivukah convergence help.
We may think that once the “right” moment has passed, it’s “too late,” or that it will feel forced or even silly to acknowledge the things or people for which we are thankful. But Chanukah/Thanksgiving proves that is never the case. From the notion of Chanukah as a Sukkot celebration deferred, to the adaptability of those still in the midst of some pretty harsh circumstances, as both the Maccabees and the Pilgrims surely were when they created their respective holidays, we are doubly reminded this year that it’s always the right time to give thanks.
Whether gathered around the menorah, the Thanksgiving table, or both, take a few moments at this rarest of calendric coincidences, to think about a “thank you” or two that you may have forgotten to say. It’s never too late.
Here are just a few questions to get you started:
What event occurred this year for which you could express more gratitude?
Who helped you out this year, someone that you could acknowledge more fully than you may have?
Was there some unexpected help or benefit that you received, perhaps from some especially unanticipated person?
As we focus attention on giving thanks this Thursday, Nov. 28 / 25-26 of Kislev, we are reminded that there is always time to celebrate and practice gratitude, and when we do, it’s a bit of a holiday — whatever we call it, and whatever time of the year.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
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