This piece first appeared in Jerusalem Post on Nov. 21, 2012.
Thanksgiving in the United States is the quintessential American holiday. The smells of the turkey cooking in the oven, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and apple pie fill American homes as families gather to be thankful and celebrate. For many watching the NFL Football game at the end of the day is what finding the Afikoman is to Passover. There are other more tangible connections between Thanksgiving and Judaism.
The pilgrims -- authors of the Mayflower Compact in November 1620, where they declared, "Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith" -- were guided by a very strong religious fervor and faith who saw themselves as establishing a New Israel. They read their Bible and many scholars point to the Sukkot, the Jewish fall harvest holiday, as being a basis for Thanksgiving.
We also know that Sukkot is the original basis why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. And that fact raises an interesting point. Both Thanksgiving and Sukkot, in this day and age, are celebrated as holidays of religious freedom when that was neither their original intent nor completely historically accurate. The earliest Jewish sources (II Macabees) explain that Hanukkah was an eight-day holiday being a late celebration of Sukkot since, "during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals." Sukkot was also an appropriate basis for Hanukkah since Sukkot was the holiday when the King Solomon dedicated the First Temple. The story of the miracle of the oil does not appear until much later during the Talmudic period because the rabbis had an ax to grind against the Hasmoneans who combined both being kings and priests, and because of their corruption and infighting eventually led to the Romans conquest and the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty until 1948. In all of these explanations of the origins of Hanukkah the freedom of Jews to celebrate our religion is paramount.
Thanksgiving is also celebrated as a holiday of religious freedom. The Puritans left England, first via Holland, having been persecuted in England for their religious beliefs. They established the Plymouth Colony to be able to celebrate their form of Christianity as they understood it and celebrated their first Thanksgiving in November of 1621. But they were not advocates of religious freedom for others; they were believers in a theocratic intolerant community. Fortunately for America, and the world, it was not the narrow minded Puritans of Plymouth that won the day, but a different Puritan who made a break with them whose thinking would prevail. Roger Williams arrived in Plymouth in 1631 with his ideas of separation of house of worship and state along with freedom of religion. By 1635 he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for these heretical beliefs and fled to present day Rhode Island where we was welcomed by the Narragansett Native Americans. There from lands he bought from them he established Providence since he believed that God's providence had led him there. As the colonies formed into a nation over the ensuing century and a half it was the voice of Roger Williams as seen in the writings of Jefferson and others that became the true vision and aim of the United States of America.
And this brings us back to the story of Hannukah. While the Maccabees were fighting for freedom from Greek occupation and oppression they were not fighting for religious freedom for all. In fact they were also involved in a civil was with the Hellenized Jews of their day. Like the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock, the Maccabees had a very narrow view of who and what they would accept when it came to religion; neither believed in a pluralistic approach to religion. And yet we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as holidays of religious freedom.
One could say that we have created a false myth about both holidays. Myths may not be literally true, but they are one of the vehicles where societies safeguard their values. In the case of the observance of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in the United States, we decided that religious freedom is something we hold sacred and have chosen to celebrate through both of these holidays. And for that we can be thankful.
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In 1997 and 1998, Birmingham City Council ran a promotional campaign called Winterval. It was three months long, and included celebrations of Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Diwali, Ramadan, Eid, Hannukah, Advent, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and Chinese New Year. At Christmas, according to a statement from the council, "there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas". Yes, it’s political correctness gone mad.
Lambeth’s Winter Lights
At last, one with a bit of truth behind it. In 2005, the turning-on of the annual Christmas lights was described in official literature as “Winter Lights” (or, toe-curlingly, as “Celebrity Lights” in one place). After several angry headlines (“The PC lights show”, etc) it transpired that a junior council member had renamed it for fear of offending non-Christians. A council spokesman said: "It was a junior-level decision and it happened to go into print, which was an error, basically.
"It was certainly not a council policy that we should call the lights ‘Winter Lights’."
Bernard Gentry, a Conservative councillor, caught the mood when he said "The idea that, in some way, the religious festival of Christmas is offensive to others is just daft - I have never heard a single person who's said that."
Hospital bans Christmas CD for mentioning Jesus
The Royal Edinburgh Hospital, apparently, refused to distribute a CD of Christmas songs in its shop, because some of the songs - get this - mentioned Jesus! It’s War. War on Christmas. Except, inevitably, it wasn’t true. As Oliver Burkeman reported in The Guardian in 2006, not only was the CD not banned, “it was actually made available at a hospital carol service that had mysteriously evaded the health authority's attempts to stamp out Christmas.” That’s the trouble with these anti-Christmas stormtroopers; they’re just not very good at it.
Wal-Mart bans Merry Christmas
In 2005, a woman emailed Wal-Mart, angry that its employees were wishing her “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. She received a slightly tongue in cheek response, saying that Christmas traditions rooted in Siberian shamanism:: "Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses, mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world".
The Catholic League threatened a boycott of Wal-Mart, and the sender of the email very soon found himself out of work.
Wal-Mart continued, however, to have its cashiers say “happy holidays”. In a statement, it said: “With more than 138 million customers coming through our stores every week and a variety of holidays that they celebrate throughout this season, ‘happy holidays’ is a pleasant greeting that applies to everyone and every celebration”.
The John Birch society
It’s not new, all of this. Way back in 1959, the John Birch Society warned America that it was under attack. A pamphlet called “There Goes Christmas?!” (note the interrobang) was distributed, including an essay by Hubert Kregeloh saying that the “Godless” United Nations was planning to take the meaning out of Christmas, so that the Communists would win. Somehow. "One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas - to denude the event of its religious meaning", he said. In the end it turned out that the UN was not, in fact, trying to ban Christmas in American department stores, but it was worth checking.
Christmas with a capital C
It’s not exactly a War on Christmas myth, this, so much as a hilarious distillation of every other myth. It’s a film, released this year, in which Angry Atheist Daniel Baldwin (the other one. No, not Stephen. The other other one) returns to his small Alaskan hometown after years in the big city, and proceeds to Wage War on Christmas. To do that, he bans everything he can think of, generally in the name of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Luckily, God-fearing All American Ted McGinley is there to see him off. Watch the trailer (above), it’s side-splitting. We’re not sure if there’s going to be a UK release, but we hope so.