As much as people Jewish and non-Jewish associate Chanukah with Christmas, paradoxically Thanksgiving is a more apt partner to Chanukah.
Like Thanksgiving, Chanukah associates with gratitude for life’s blessings. In fact, the place in the Siddur/prayer book where we
find Chanukah is adjacent to Thanksgiving, i.e. the part of the Amidah, prayer of connection to God looking at priorities of partnership, in which we thank God for the daily ongoing easily overlooked miracles of life. In connection to “Modim Anachnu Lach” is where we recite the blessing of appreciation for Chanukah. Both holidays are grounded in the same Torah holiday, though most people don’t realize that: the Maccabees make no mention of a miracle of oil. What they were cognizant of was that a good time to celebrate a Temple dedication (Chanukah means “dedication”) was when King Solomon dedicated the First Temple, during the thanksgiving holiday of Sukkot. For the Maccabees, 8 days of Chanukah became a delayed Sukkot celebration, since in its proper time they were still fighting for existence as a Jewish people. For the Pilgrims, their celebration of Thanksgiving was inspired by their study of the Bible, in particular, in appreciating America as the Promised Land for religious freedom (or at least freedom as they wanted it); the holiday drew its inspiration from the biblical harvest holiday of Sukkot.
So it is ironic that Chanukah is usually associated with the Christmas season. If anything, the strongest connection to make between those two holidays is Chanukah’s message of holding onto your values and identity even midst the pressure of a larger dominating culture which glowed with light and joy of its own: i.e. the Greek enlightenment of humankind with its glorification
of the human mind and body. The next time you go for a workout at the gym, pause to thank the Greeks, if you like, for introducing humanity to that concept. In the Maccabees day, plenty of Jews were distressed by their opposition to Hellenization, assimilation of the day. They liked their membership in the GCC, the Greek Community Center where they could work out like
any citizens of the Greek empire. In fact, until someone came along to tell them they had no choice but to live as the Greeks, many Jews enjoyed the hundred years before the arrival of the cruel King Antiochus the 4th, for, until then, they could choose what they liked about being Jewish and still fit in nicely in the emerging popular Greek culture and its modern ways. Does
that sound familiar?
Judaism seems to struggle most in permissive eras when Jews are allowed to fit into the popular broader culture. Had there been no uprising by the Maccabees, and no brutal king to force the issue, who knows whether Judaism would have survived the comforts of the Greek civilization? A recent survey came out indicating that Judaism especially in America is losing itself
in the ease of life in this country. Yet, the Chanukah message, as it pertains to the month of December, is that the greatness of this country is found in its diversity of cultures and its respect for such differences. As “response” to Christmas Chanukah is not about mimicking it, nor competing with it in terms of gift giving and merry making. Chanukah is positioned to remind everyone that had the Jews of that era not maintained their Jewish identity by winning an impossible war against the empire of the day, there would be no Chanukah today and, of course, no Christmas.
The word “Hebrew”, in Hebrew, “Ivri”, means “another side”, a different point of view and perspective. Chanukah is a vivid and timely reminder to keep your unique position in life, your particular perspective. In so doing it serves to remind everyone to look within themselves for their unique values and qualities and become strong enough and secure enough in that capacity that you
rejoice for the joys and celebrations of others and not feel left out or inadequate because you are not of someone else’s culture or path.
I hope your Thanksgiving was doubly meaningful this year with its partnership with Chanukah, for indeed it is an American reminder to look at so much to be thankful for in this society, even with all its challenges and disappointments. The Pilgrims saw it as the Promised Land, the closest you could get to the vision of ancient Israel, to be at home in partnership with God in a world built on Torah principles. As Jews, we are fortunate and blessed to be living proof of the abiding nature of such values, that each day is an opportunity for gratitude and thanks for more blessings than we can keep in mind and heart.
I pray that as the last lights of Chanukah flicker out so early this year in the holiday season, you keep that light glowing within, the light of God reminding us of life’s miracles and the blessings we have to be alive in this special, if not sacred, context in which we live.