I am resisting the temptation to merge these two holidays into a single hybrid with a name that is a registered trademark. Chanukah and Thanksgiving are separate holidays, but they do have some things to teach each other.
Chanukah commemorates a miracle. In the second century BCE, the Maccabees defeated the Seleucid Empire to regain Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. At the end of the war, they needed to dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel, which included rekindling the great seven-branched Temple Menorah. However, they found only a single cruse of sanctified oil to light the Menorah — enough to burn for only a single day. Yet, when the Maccabees lit the Menorah, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to press new oil under the supervision of the Priests.
There is a question, then, about the first day of the holiday. What was the miracle of the first day? It hardly counts as a miracle if a cruse of oil, expected to burn for one day, burns for one day. Right? Why do we light a candle on the first day of Chanukah to praise a miracle that occurred on that day? What miracle?
Perhaps the miracle is that the Maccabees lit then Menorah at all. They certainly could have waited until they had more oil. But they did not. What insight caused the Maccabees to light the Menorah, even though they knew that it would take an act of God to sustain it?
Here's a way to think of it. The Maccabees spent years fighting the Seleucid Empire. They had pitted sword against sword and suffered terrible losses. When they won, they had every reason to believe that their victory was the result of their own cunning, bravery and personal sacrifice. Yet, the Maccabees recognized that the victory belonged to God, not to themselves.
This is what gave the Maccabees the confidence to light the Menorah with only a day's worth of oil. They knew that the rededication of the Temple was won "Not by might and not by power but by [God's] spirit" (Zechariah 4:6). They never lost awareness that it was God who had sustained them through the war and that God would continue to sustain them.
And this, too, is what we celebrate on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is the most spiritual and universal of all American holidays. It is a day to recognize that there is something beyond ourselves that we must thank. On this day, we remember that it is not just by our own sweat and effort that we have received the bounty and riches that we enjoy in life. We give thanks on Thanksgiving for the very same reason the Maccabees lit the Menorah. We recognize that we are blessed by something beyond ourselves.
We do have some good reason to celebrate these two holidays together, if only as a once-in-a-lifetime event. And, now, it appears, for the very last time ever.
Since 1941, the United States has fixed Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, making this year's observance, on November 28, the latest possible date for the holiday. This year, the first day of Chanukah falls on its earliest possible date on the Gregorian calendar, November 28. However, this is the last century in which Chanukah can land as early as November 28.
The Hebrew calendar is slightly out of skew with the Gregorian calendar. With the passage of time, Hebrew dates move forward on the Gregorian calendar by an average of three-quarters of a day per century. By the end of the 21st century, this shift will make November 29 the earliest possible Gregorian date on which Chanukah can land. This year will be the last time the holidays will ever converge.
You may have heard some people say that the holidays will come back together in tens of thousands of years, after the inconsistency of the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars pushes Chanukah deeper into winter, through the spring, across the summer, and back into late autumn. But that can never happen.
The Torah requires that the Jewish holidays stay in their proper seasons. In particular, Passover must be celebrated in the spring (according to Deuteronomy 16:1). Long before Chanukah migrates across the seasons, the Hebrew calendar will have to be revised to keep Passover in the spring. When that happens, Chanukah will be locked in place, never to find itself coinciding with Thanksgiving again.
So, enjoy the convergence now and for the last time ever. Make the first day of Chanukah this year a unique opportunity to remember that the miracle of the first day is the miracle of saying, "Thank you," to a Source beyond us all.
Happy Chanukah! Happy Thanksgiving!
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The Miracle of the First Day of Chanukah