Celebrating Thanksgivukkah with an Interfaith Family

November 18, 2013Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

Thanksgivukkah, the amazing confluence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, is all the rage this year. Manischewitz is promoting their products with it, specialty websites are blooming, and creative articles abound. One only needs curiosity and a computer to find lots of information about this once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

For Jewish families, combining Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is a terrific chance to celebrate a secular holiday and educate their children about an historic event. They are thrilled with the chance to share their traditions as a family, especially because Hanukkah usually falls in December, when the kids are back in school and grandparents are "over the hill and through the woods” – or at least a couple of airports away. 

For interfaith families, though, spouses and extended family members who are not Jewish may see Hanukkah as a religious holiday that has no place mixing with a secular American one. This may especially be the case for Jewish families who celebrate Thanksgiving at the home of relatives who are not Jewish. In these intermarried families, tensions may rise, with the Christian (or Muslim, or atheist, etc.) parents or grandparents fearing that lighting the Hanukkah candles is tantamount to pressure to convert. While the Jewish grandparents conjure memories of Hanukkahs past and shop for holiday gifts, relatives who have never celebrated Hanukkah wonder what they are getting themselves into.

Fostering an understanding of Hanukkah and focusing on the holiday’s universal themes can help interfaith families to focus on their commonalities rather than their difference.

Hanukkah is the celebration of a historic event, recalling a small band of Maccabees (guerrilla fighters) who overcame their Roman oppressors and allowing the Jews to reclaim the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as their right to worship as they wished. Christians, too, were once persecuted by the Romans for their religious beliefs, and people of other faiths have, throughout history, been the target of religious persecution and oppression. Hanukkah offers an opportunity to celebrate victory over such religious persecution and gives us all a chance to contemplate how the belief in the rightness of our own ideas can infringe on the notions of others and even to discuss the complexities of religious freedom and the tension between minority rights and majority rule.

Hanukkah is also the celebration of a miraculous event. When the Jews reclaimed the Temple, they found only a tiny amount of oil left to light to Eternal Flame. Miraculously, that small bit of oil lasted for eight days, until a new supply could arrive – which is why we now celebrate Hanukkah for eight days. As we light the Hanukkah candles, we say a few short prayers expressing our thanks to God for allowing this miracle and commanding us to kindle these lights. Such sentiments of praise for the unexplainable and wondrous bounty are similar in both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving.

In other words, this year’s convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving offer us the opportunity to enrich our Thanksgiving dinners with more than just cholesterol. For interfaith families, Thanksgivukkah can be a learning opportunity, a time for discussion and comparison, and a chance to bond and share in a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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