Not even ready for Thanksgiving, let alone Chanukah
For me, it begins with a deep reluctance to relinquish summer — which is the setting for my extended metaphor: an eternal crawl space lined with sunshine, books, and the lush foliage that we call The Treehouse. Though, as friends know, we literally spend only a few months residing in the enclosure within the trees, I spend most of the year nestled in the imagery of escape.
My winter dreams see me racing out the door of The House, leaping over 10-foot snow drifts and being lifted by a retractable rope ladder into a treehouse hundreds of feet high — soon to be entirely concealed by thick leaves and clambering vines. There I find myself suddenly within a small, warm room, hung round with long trailing satin draperies, which fall on deep cushions and a small bookcase.
The latter is not what it appears, just space enough for 20 books; it is rather an intuitive library, in which books once taken off the shelf are automatically replaced by others which anticipate the reading pleasure of yours truly — sort of like a mind-reading Kindle, but with real paper and cardboard books to caress.
I have not analyzed this dream. On its surface, one might say I must really hate winter and yearn for a warmer clime. However, that is not true. I love winter and its accompanying snowfall, though I must admit to admiring it mostly from the inside looking out, nestled on a sofa with my winter cache of reading.
Still, I love to build snowmen and I have another recurring dream in which He-Who-occupies-VIP-status in our household enthusiastically joins me in rolling snow balls and shaping small boulders into a jolly backyard companion. In reality, He-Who simply snuggles down warmly in his armchair with his own book and ventures out only when absolutely necessary. Jolly is not the first adjective to occur to him when gazing at lumps of snow.
I also love the turn from summer and the usual order of fall and winter holidays: Rosh Hashonah comes along in the midst of long trailing autumn days and launches us into a new year brimming with one more chance to get it right: one more shot at last year’s unrealized possibilities and unread books. With winter approaching, Thanksgiving draws all the generations of our family together — including those we have lost but whom in memory cluster around us—as we’re seated around an abundant table.
Then as we dip deeply into December, Chanukah usually arrives sending the eight little lights of the Menorah dancing into the dark winter sky. Normally this happens just before or coinciding with the spectacular drama of Christmas lights that transform the ordinary trappings of our everyday world.
This year something else happens: a strange alignment of the stars and of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars and someone has the chutzpah (overweening nerve) to announce that Chanukah will arrive on the eve of Thanksgiving. And it does.
It all has to be a terrible mistake, I think, although there are pundits enough to tell us not to worry: this particular juxtaposition of holidays will not reoccur for another 79,000 years when, indeed, we will have ceased worrying. Others say, “Just get over it and call it Thanksgivakah!!”
Easily said! However, once faced with the reality, we do adapt: after all, both holidays are celebrations we ritualize through our consumption of food. We can easily turn candied sweet potatoes into latkes (potato pancakes), and garnish them with cranberry rather than applesauce. And we do.
As to spinning dreidels (tops), why not play this simple child’s game after ingesting the great gobs of tryptophan inhering in the fixings that accompany turkey? Sit on the floor with a pile of pennies (Chanukah gelt) and your four-sided top on which are drawn four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, hay, and shin.
Each letter stands for the following message: Nas, Gadol, Hayah, Sham: A Great Miracle Happened There. Recalling this little game we all played as kids and that our kids and grandkids continue to play, I realize that while intent on the game we are often more intent on winning pennies than on what the words mean.
In like fashion, it’s not uncommon to ignore the origin of holidays and simply enjoy them as “days off.” In processing the collision of Thanksgiving and Chanukah then, we have to look beneath the surface of things to discover the threads linking two seemingly disparate festivals.
According to Jewish sources, Chanukah was declared a Jewish national holiday 2,178 years ago, while American history tells us that Thanksgiving was pronounced a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
According to Harvard minister and author Peter Gomes, “Thanksgiving is not your typical harvest festival; it’s about more than bumper crops and giant watermelons...[Rather it] comes packed with an American sense of its mythic past... a narrative about an arduous journey to escape religious persecution... to search for freedom in a new land.”
Similarly, the story of Chanukah has also been described as “a narrative deeply embedded in the collective Jewish psyche of how we fought back against religious oppression in our own land …”
In each case, a people whose liberties were denied and who were victimized by tyrannical systems, overcame their subjugation and endured to rejoice in their freedom and to give thanks for the miracles of their survival. So it was that this year as some of us sat down to turkey and latkes, we were reminded that indeed our ancestors had significant reason to celebrate and to pass down to successive generations of us those traditions of gratitude we ritualize in our celebrations of both Chanukah and Thanksgiving — which this year arrived together.