Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Great Holiday Congruence

Are you ready?  Traditional holiday plans are were complicated for some folks as two festive occasions collide on the calendar.  Not only is this coincidence rare—it will never happen again.
I am talking about Thanksgiving, which this year is celebrated on November 28—the latest date on which the fourth Thursday of November may fall—and the first night of Chanukah, 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which this year occurs on the earliest possible date.  That means that by tradition the first night is this evening and the first full day is Thanksgiving.  But because the Jewish lunar calendar is slowly sliding forward in relation to the western Gregorian calendar, after this the earliest date will be the 29th.
There is even a spreading name for it—Thanksganukkah.
For Jews it is an obvious challenge to celebrate or try integrating two celebrations with very different culinary traditions.  Some will opt for an early Thanksgiving meal and a light meal with traditional touches prior to the family gathering to light the Menorah.  Magazine and newspaper articles abound with advice, both cooking and social, on how to deal with it.
But Jews are not the only ones affected—many Thanksgiving tables have long welcomed extended friends and family—even lonesome strangers—for the feast.  And many families are religiously “complicated.” 
My family is a perfect example.  My wife Kathy is not only a practicing Catholic, but the Director of Religious Education at a very large suburban parish.  I’m a Unitarian Universalist whose personal theology is, at best, eclectic. For the last few years my former sister-in-law Arlene and her husband Michael have hosted us and others in their Chicago home.  She is culturally Jewish but not observant and dabbles in Buddhist meditation.  Her husband Michael was raised Irish Catholic and his brother, a jovial Milwaukee priest who said the funeral Mass for my late brother is sometimes in attendance.  So was, at least once, her brother, an agnostic scientist/inventor.  Of our progeny, Heather, her husband Ken, and daughter Caiti are practicing Catholics.  Carol returned to the Church after her husband died and her son Randy is being brought up one.  Our youngest Maureen is resolute in her refusal of any religious affiliation and iffy about the whole “God Thing.”  Our other two grandsons Nicholas and Joseph are likewise officially apostate.  Of course my nephew and Arlene’s son Ira S. Murfin, aka The Last Bohemian and a gifted raconteur whose religion just may be art in all of its forms will be there with his bride, the estimable Emmy Bean, an actress, singer, puppeteer, and Jill-of-all-performance who was raised in a famously liberal and activist New York City Protestant congregation and whose mother is an ordained minister and father a former minister turned stage actor.  Also gathered at the table in any given year are whatever friends or acquaintances need a Thanksgiving table to join, whatever their religious affiliations. 
Like I said, complicated.  When I discovered the congruence of the holidays a couple of weeks ago, I contacted Arlene although I knew she is not an observant Jew.  I had volunteered to bring a ham as our family’s contribution to the feast.  But I had qualms.  Would it be, at least, a cultural travesty, I asked in an e-mail.  Arlene answered with an e-mail laugh.  Of course not. 
In some ways, philosophically, even historically, the two great holidays should not be hard to reconcile.
Chanukah or the Festival of Light commemorates a miracle.  When an army Jewish traditionalists under Judah Macabee, finally ousted the forces of King Antiochus III of the Greco-Syria Seleucid Empire, Hellenized Jews, from Jerusalem in 165 BCE they found the Temple profaned and an idol of Zeus erected.  The Macabees undertook the ritual cleaning of the temple to restore it to its uses as the ritual center of Jewish life. 
By proscription the Menorah in the Holy of Holies was to burn 24 hours a day, but only one small flask was found containing just enough oil to burn for one.  Yet the lamp burned brightly for eight days in which time new ritual oil could be purified.  In later years the Talmudic scholars proclaimed holy days to commemorate the miracle. 
It is a minor holiday in the Jewish liturgical calendar, but culturally important.  Many Orthodox Jews have come to disparage the tendency of the holiday to become a kind of “Jewish Christmas” complete with elaborate gifts for children and “Chanukah” bushes in America.  A lot of interfaith families find ways of celebrating both holidays for their children.
But the experience of Jews trapped in Europe during World War II and the Holocaust deepened a connection to the holiday for many.  Jews in hiding, or even in death camps, found furtive ways to celebrate what was after all thanksgiving celebration for deliverance from oppression. 
A family based celebration, Chanukah menorahs are lit each night at sun down for eight nights, lighting first one candle then an additional one each night for the eight days.  Treats made with oil—a kind of filled doughnut called  pontshkes, latkes (potato pancakes), and fritters, are served by Ashkenazi families and children gamble for gold foil covered chocolate coins called gelt by spinning the dreidel, a simple top.
Thanksgiving is also a joyous family oriented celebration.  It is the American version of almost universally celebrated harvest festival typically held on the cusp of the arrival of winter—a dreaded time of starvation and want.  It is decorated with a largely mythic back story about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation and a feast they shared with probably uninvited Native American guests. 
It is the only truly American feast day.  Because it is unencumbered by ritual ties to any specific religion, to patriotic observance, or the commemoration a historic (or mythic) individuals who stand in a symbols for aspiring ethnic groups, Thanksgiving is the most inclusive of all American celebrations.  Native Americans, balking at the back story, have protested in recent years, but when stripped of that baggage many can join in the celebration.
It is the day when the family comes together, often at “home” however far away that is.  And not just blood families.  Many gatherings are of “intentional” families of friends gathered by those far away from blood relatives or even alienated from them.  The lonely, lost, and hungry are not forgotten.  Many are invited to join family suppers.  Volunteers spend the day serving meals in churches, retirement homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, and military posts.
Prayers are often said.  Thanks are given to God, or the mover of the universe, or a greater power known by a thousand names and unknown.  Thanks are also given to the good fortune and the dumb luck to be born among bounty, to the hands and labor of humans who in one way or another brought the bounty to our tables.
Surely such two great traditions of expressing gratitude and love can find a way to dwell together this year. 
I, for one, am looking forward to it. 
Pass the turkey…and the latkes.

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