A Holiday Classic on Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and Christmas

by Michael C. Dorf

As Prof Buchanan noted yesterday, for the holidays, we hear at DoL will be running "classics," i.e., reruns. For your reading pleasure, below I reproduce an essay that first ran on Thanksgiving, 2013. If you're starved for more recent content, you can also check out my latest Verdict column: Lessons from Sam Bankman-Fried’s Brief Stay in a Bahamian Jail. Okay, here's the classic:

The True Meaning of Thanksgivingukkah
Today is "Thanksgivingukkah," the extraordinarily rare--as in once in 70,000 years--convergence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah. The strange confluence has provided pundits with the opportunity to promote oddball recipes like turkey corpse cooked in Maneschewitz wine or sweet-potato latkes. For me, as both a vegan and an ethnically-identifying-but-non-religious American Jew, the coincidence of these two problematic holidays provides an interesting opportunity for reflection. I find that the two holidays are in some ways mirror images: The core message of Thanksgiving was a pleasant lie but the holiday has become a horror show, whereas Hanukkah's origins are terrible but it has become mostly harmless.  Let me explain.
When I was in elementary school in the early 1970s, I was taught that the first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 and it was a celebration of peaceful cooperation between native Americans (then still called Indians) and the Pilgrim settlers. It was always a bit of a myth and the holiday did not really get going until the 19th century. Then it evolved, first becoming more religious and then less religious, but that original idea of cross-cultural cooperation was something worth promoting--although I certainly understand how contemporary native Americans might resent the day as a whitewash of genocide.

As a vegan I find the mainstream contemporary version of Thanksgiving repugnant. From the White House "pardoning" of a particular turkey to the commonplace reference to Thanksgiving as "turkey day," Thanksgiving is one of the few occasions during the year when omnivorous Americans seem to acknowledge that their gustatory pleasure is purchased by killing billions of innocent beings. That very acknowledgment belies the familiar bromide that awareness is the first step towards change. 

Socrates believed that people only do bad because they don't know the good. Paul McCartney reportedly said that "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian." These are nice sentiments but they're naive. People who oppose the death penalty sometimes say that executions should be televised as a means of demonstrating how brutal it is, but when executions were public, they were enjoyed like sporting events. So I regard the comfort that people have with talking openly about the killing of turkeys, even if only around Thanksgiving, as a sign of how far we vegans have to go to win hearts and minds.

Hanukkah, meanwhile, celebrates the military triumph of a group--the Maccabees--who were the Second Century BC equivalent of the Taliban. Today largely described as fighting for national self-determination and religious freedom, the Maccabees were religious fundamentalists who also attacked and forcibly converted "Hellenized" Jews, i.e., Jews who had assimilated to the dominant Greek culture--with its dreaded mathematics, drama, art, and philosophy. The Python boys were depicting a clash that occurred a couple of centuries after the Maccabee revolt, but they nicely captured the problem with the fundamentalist/nationalist Jewish uprising in the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene in The Life of Brian.

If highly problematic in its origins, Hanukkah has nonetheless become a largely harmless holiday for contemporary American Jews. We celebrate this relatively minor festival as a Jewish alternative to Christmas. And since Christmas itself is probably merely an adaptation by Christianity of pagan festivals, modern Hanukkah is a simulacrum of a simulacrum. We can decry Hanukkah's true origins (as I have just done), but that really misses the point. Hanukkah's significance has nothing to do with history and everything to do with the calendar.  If Tisha B'Av (a Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, as well as other catastrophes) rather than Hanukkah occurred in December, American Jews would mark Tisha B'Av by giving presents and wishing one another a "happy Tisha B'Av".

One might think that Hanukkah's coincidence with Thanksgiving rather than Christmas this year makes it difficult to conceptualize Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas, but in fact it's easy. The enshrinement in recent years of the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday"--and the still-more-recent practice of retailers holding Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day itself--have made of the Thanksgiving-through-Christmas season an undifferentiated holiday of consumerism, a kind of suburban sprawl on the calendar.  Given this hyper-commercialization, it is fair to say that increasingly, the period from late November through late December may aptly be described as Thanksgivingmas.  And so there should be nothing at all odd about American Jews celebrating Thanksgivingukkah, for it is the perfectly natural counterpart to the holiday now celebrated each year by most of our Christian neighbors. It may take another 70,000 years for Thanksgivingukkah to return as an official matter. But in spirit, Thanksgivingukkah will now be an annual event.