Chanukah. Thanksgiving. Their paths cross for the first time since 1888 this week. But is their chance encounter this year the only link between them? Could there be more that binds these two separate holidays commemorating events that took place nearly 1,800 years apart? And is there more that we can take from our simultaneous celebration of the two?
I’ve been thinking about this a bit. Knowing a little of the history of each holiday helped me realize that there is indeed a common (or holy) denominator—the biblical feast of Sukkot. Sukkot, aka “Tabernacles” or “Booths,” is that great eight-day celebration that draws the hearts of the covenant members to rejoice before God, thanking Him for providing sustenance through an abundant harvest and commemorating how He dwelt with and provided for His people in the wilderness after the exodus from oppression in Egypt. And it’s ultimately a time to realize, know, and acknowledge that our awesome God dwells with us. When studying the origins of both Chanukah and Thanksgiving, we see that Sukkot served at the very least as a template for each.
The situation in the land of Israel during the 2nd century BCE was bleak. The evil and oppressive Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, ruled with a heavy hand. The observance of God’s word was outlawed. This included the celebration of the Sabbaths, eating kosher, circumcising sons, and offering sacrifices to the God of Israel. The apex of Antiochus’ arrogance was reached when he desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by erecting an idol to Zeus (which happened to look like Antiochus) and sacrificed swine on the altar. Soon a small band of Jews, zealous for God and His word, rebelled and fought back despite being severely outnumbered and outmanned. These men, known as the Maccabees, against all odds but with God on their side eventually defeated the Seleucids and were able to retake Jerusalem and the Temple. Their first task was to cleanse and rededicate the Temple to reestablish worship. When they did, they celebrated a new festival that was based on an ancient one. Here’s what 2 Maccabees 10:5-6 says:
“It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of Tabernacles, remembering how not long before, during the feast of Tabernacles, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.”
While Chanukah was not intended to be Sukkot, it was celebrated in a similar manner and there were marked similarities. Both lasted eight days; both were characterized by rejoicing; and both brought to mind the theme of God delivering His people from the oppressive rule of gentile kings.
Jumping ahead to 17th century CE Europe and we find a small band of Puritans seeking shelter and deliverance from the religious oppression they experienced in their native land. In 1620 they wound up in America and experienced an extremely harsh winter that lead to the death of many in their group. The following Autumn they reaped a great harvest and celebrated what is traditionally known as the first Thanksgiving. There is much speculation and debate about what may or may not have influenced the celebration of that group of Puritans that year. Some historians suggest that Sukkot was a factor. While there is no explicit evidence for this, there are some interesting reasons to believe this to be the case. First, before landing in America the Puritans spent some time in Holland living among Sephardic Jews there. Second, these Puritans were adherents to a replacement theology which means they saw themselves as a “new Israel” that was experiencing a new kind of exodus and deliverance from oppression. They also knew the Bible very well. Certainly they would have been familiar with God’s feasts as found in Leviticus 23, Sukkot included. At the same time, however, they would not have viewed what they considered ceremonial or ritual aspects of the Torah as binding upon their group—and Sukkot would have been considered one of these non-binding commands. Either way, it’s certainly possible that Sukkot thematically informed the earliest Thanksgiving celebration of those Puritans.
So what does this have to do with us on this Thanksgivukkah as we enjoy our turkey, stuffing, gelt, and pumpkin-filled sufganiyot? Perhaps it can further enhance our celebration as we give thanks. Psalm 105 is helpful for us here. It opens like this:
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples. Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders. Glory in His holy name; Let the heart of those who seek the Lord be glad. Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His face continually. Remember His wonders which He has done, His marvels and the judgments uttered by His mouth, O seed of Abraham, His servant, O sons of Jacob, His chosen ones! He is the Lord our God; His judgments are in all the earth.”
The Psalm opens with the command to give thanks, and as we read the rest of the Psalm (which I encourage you to do) we see that it is almost entirely a reflection on how God has been faithful to His covenant—delivering, providing for, sustaining, and dwelling with Israel throughout her history from Abraham to the Promised Land. And this gratefulness is really at the heart of our regular celebration of Sukkot, of the Maccabean institution of Chanukah, and the Puritan institution of Thanksgiving. As we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year let’s seize this unique dual opportunity to reflect on how God has not abandoned His covenant people and let us give thanks to God for His faithfulness to us throughout our history. And let us also know that if and when we are in a situation where we are oppressed by rulers, leaders, and governments because of our faith in and relationship with the God of Israel and His Messiah Yeshua. . .He will not abandon us either.