Thanksgivukkah: What it means for Jews

The word “Thanksgivukkah” engrained itself in the American social fabric in late October when people across the country started to realize two of the season’s major holidays would overlap.

For the first time since 1888 one of Hanukkah’s eight days fell on Thanksgiving -- and it won’t happen again for approximately 78,000 years.

The Ameri-centric word for the second day of Hanukkah trended on Twitter. Greeting card and T-shirt companies used it to pitch products. There's even a turkey-themed menorah called a "Menurkey."

But beyond the fun names and creative recipes meant to accommodate differing traditions, two unique holidays exist with common themes and roots buried deep in the history of the United States.

“In many ways, Hanukkah is an American holiday,” said Gary P. Zola , a professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He's also a rabbi.

Zola said Hanukkah is celebrated differently in the U.S. then it is in others parts of the world.

“If you go to Russia or other parts of the world with diasporic Jewish communities, you won’t see the TV commercials and all the decorations,” he said. “It’s observed around the world and is certainly a significant religious holiday, but we take it to a different level in this country.”

In North America, Hanukkah became more important for many Jewish families in the final decades of the 20th century.

The profile of Christmas grew in the U.S. during the 19th century and was declared a federal holiday in 1870. As a result, some Jews wanted an alternative to the Christmas celebrations that often overlap with Hanukkah, Zola said.

Historically, many Jewish parents gave their children "gelt" or chocolate coins during Hanukkah as rewards for Torah study. But during the 20th century families stated to give more substantial gifts to their children, according to the website Chabad.org . Some believe they did this to keep Jewish children from feeling left out of the Christmas gift giving.

Zola says the new emphasis on Hanukkah isn’t about competing with other holidays. It is intended to give Jewish people a chance to express their faith and appreciate their religious background during a season that sometimes seems to focus on various elements of Christmas.

“It's not a bad thing to celebrate your faith and places from which your ancestors came," he said. "It can be difficult to go through a season that places such an emphasis on Christmas. It’s tough sometimes.”

Sadly, that’s the case for many Jewish people in 2013 due to the Thanksgivukkah.

In addition to not having their own holiday to look forward to during the Christmas season, Jewish families had to incorporate their Hanukkah traditions with their Thanksgiving rituals.

Katie Dreyer, of Cincinnati, comes from a mixed-faith family. She planned to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family and then go home to light two candles on her hanukiah (the menorah used during Hanukkah).

Despite that fact, she doesn’t feel cheated out of either holiday. In some ways, she believes, the timing of the holiday allows more families to spend time together.

Many people have three days off work or school over the Thanksgiving holiday. That’s three days of celebrating Hanukkah with loved ones some people wouldn’t have had if the holiday occurred later in the year, she said.

"It's pretty amazing to be able to have this experience in my lifetime and share it with my family. It's very great to spend time with family and friends on Thanksgiving,” said 14-year-old Jack Loon, who celebrated Thanksgivukkah with his extended family.

In addition to possible scheduling and traveling conveniences, Dreyer thinks there’s a natural synergy between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

That sentiment is reinforced by a statement made by David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

In an article in National Geographic , Kraemer thinks the two holidays “coming together is totally appropriate" because of their connection to a biblical fall harvest holiday known as the Festival of the Tabernacles.

He contends the 17th century pilgrims who came to the U.S. aboard the Mayflower sought to give thanks for crops that would sustain them through the winter.

Unable to observe the festival at the proper time because they were in the midst of fighting, the Maccabees celebrated instead at the time of the rededication of the Temple in the second century B.C.E., Kraemer said. That event serves as the basis for Hanukkah.

These commonalities are visible in some of the foods prepared during both celebrations, specifically potatoes.

Potatoes were local foods available and in season at the time of the fall harvest in New England and Eastern Europe, where the ancestors of the majority of American Jews came from.

Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes are served at most Thanksgiving feasts, but this year many tables featured latkes , fried potato pancakes usually topped with either sour cream or applesauce.

In addition to

the pancakes, deep-fried, jam-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot are a traditional treat served on Hanukkah.

Both foods are cooked in oil, which symbolizes the miracle of the lamps in the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem staying lit for eight days on a single day's worth of oil.

Today, Jews everywhere light menorahs on each night of Hanukkah in honor of that miracle. One candle or flame is lit for each night until the eighth and final night.

Zola said in addition to the calendric commonalities, the holidays are also connected on a sentimental level – national liberation, religious freedom and thanksgiving.

"Both holidays are about groups of people coming together to celebrate the gifts they've been given. They both gives a reason to sit back with our families, bow our heads and say thank you," he said.

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