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October 16, 2013
My family has always had a Thanksgivukkah tradition. Our local Whole Foods usually makes a special purchase of vegan, kosher marshmallows to top Thanksgiving sweet potato casseroles. We always buy several bags along with fair trade chocolate coins in bulk for Hanukkah and make S’mores in our toaster oven. This year, as we celebrate both holidays on the same day, we look forward to our holiday S’mores, as well as preparing in several ways to make our usual Thanksgiving guests comfortable with celebrating our Jewish holiday alongside us.
As you start to think about your holiday plans, you might find that while Thanksgiving is normally a convergence of certain friends or family members, and Hanukkah is normally celebrated with other loved ones, this dual holiday will bring new people together. You might be at your in-laws’ as usual for Thanksgiving, but this is the first time they will be celebrating Hanukkah. Or your children, who are just starting to grasp the meaning of each holiday, will have double the excitement on the second night of the festival of lights. Whomever you are celebrating with, it should be a fun and meaningful experience. Here are a few tips to think about as you plan for your gathering, whether you’re a host or a guest.
Consider sending a detailed email or having conversations with your guests to make clear any changes to the conventional Thanksgiving. Do you serve kosher meals on Jewish holidays? Will you light the candles of your hanukkiah? Will guests bring their own to light? Will only the children? Will gifts be given? Who gives to whom? What type of presents are usually exchanged?
At the gathering, practice the great Jewish tradition of teaching as we celebrate and be prepared to provide translations of prayers, an easy-to-tell version of the miracle being celebrated, explanation of holiday foods, instructions for playing dreidel and even stories from your family’s previous celebrations to help guests get in the spirit. Of course, provide all necessary materials.
Before the meal, consider altering prayers to be inclusive of all attendees. For instance, my father is Christian and usually concludes prayers with the phrase, “In Jesus’s name, Amen.” When any of his children who are not Christian are present, he instead thanks God for Jesus within the prayer so that all can join him in the “Amen” without feeling that they will have to pray in Jesus’s name. Examine your own prayer habits for similar ways you can encourage others to practice alongside you.
If you’ll be guests at a home that isn’t Jewish (and you won’t be home before sundown), it is perfectly OK to call the host and discuss accommodations for your religious practice. If you are uncomfortable with prayers to the Trinity, work out a diplomatic way to share this. If you want to light candles and say the blessings, find out if your host is comfortable with that and if so, offer to bring your usual holiday set-up and ask if you should bring extras so everyone can participate.
My family keeps kosher and I explain to friends that if there are vegetarian options, we will be fine, although sometimes folks need reminding that chicken broth and bacon fat make a dish no longer veggie-friendly. Consider bringing a dish to share. Most people will be comfortable with this, but it’s OK to call back later and politely explain that you will need to leave early.
Since one of the two is a civic holiday in this dual celebration, much of the discomfort that many people feel about Christmas and Hanukkah mash-ups should not be an issue. Feel free to make sweet potato latkes, served with cranberry sauce and whipped cream and stuff your turkey with challah dressing. Create hanukkiyot from the Three Maidens (squash, beans and corn). Place the pilgrim figurines amongst the lit candles in the windowsill.
Level the playing field for those who are and aren’t Jewish by trying out a new celebration. After we were invited to a sufganiyot (doughnut)-making party one year, we adopted it into our own tradition. I prep during the day to make a basic yeast dough, then set up stations around the kitchen with a list of steps for the guests to follow. I retire to the living room with a glass of wine and the children while my husband and the guests figure out an assembly line to roll the dough, cut circles, fry them, roll them in sugar and fill them with jelly. Or, if you and your guests play cards, consider learning Kvitlech in addition to playing dreidel.
If you’d like to keep festivities a little more Thanksgiving-flavored, consider simply keeping it kosher this year. Trader Joe’s has traditionally carried kosher turkeys and brisket, or make a journey to find a kosher butcher. Eliminate all dairy from your meal (including butter, which can get overlooked), as well as shellfish and pork. The effort to find new side dishes that highlight delicious ingredients with olive oil and crunchy salt instead of heavy cream and cheese will set this meal apart from other Thanksgivings as something special and out-of-the-ordinary. Desserts can either wait until the meal has been over for two hours or be dairy-free, as well. Eggs and mayonnaise are considered pareve, so your leftover sandwiches are in the clear, too.
As my husband says, “Hanukkah is not a meal holiday.” So spend some time doing something other than eating together in order to give the holy day its due. Pull together a mix of popular Hanukkah songs (see below) or spend some time teaching children the Hebrew words for the traditional blessing, which is often sung. Pinterest has opened up a world of ideas for crafts, from origami Stars of David to hand printed hanukkiyot to gelt bags. Of course, playing dreidel is simple enough for even the smallest children and buttons or trinkets can replace gelt if you are uncomfortable with using play money.
Ask the kids to put together a special pageant commemorating the shared holidays. Provide a dress-up box to help their creativity along. Although Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming is my favorite book for its sympathetic, clever and humorous treatment of the angst so many Jewish people feel when Hanukkah is elided into Christmas, there are other great storybooks for kids less December-oriented. By reading them, kids leave your Thanksgiving celebration knowing that the Jewish holiday celebrated on that same day is about more than just its symbols. Hanukkah at Valley Forge by Stephen Krensky and Greg Harlin is a great example.
As the nights grow longer and colder, most of us need to be reminded in some way that a higher power keeps the light shining and the harvest coming. Thanksgiving allows us to take a moment to remember how much gratitude is owed to the work of others: the soil, the farmers, the migrant workers, the truckers, the grocers and the cooks. We are powerfully reminded that our lives are dependent on others for its basic sustenance. Hanukkah reminds us that we are similarly dependent upon God for miracles. It seems right by more than just the calendar that these two sentiments should be celebrated together every once in awhile.
For more Thanskgivukkah ideas, visit this great Thanksgivukkah website brought to you by our friends at JewishBoston.com!
1. “Hanukkah Blessings” by Barenaked Ladies
2. “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” by Indigo Girls
3. “The Chanukah Song” by Adam Sandler
4. “Miracle” by Matisyahu
5. “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah” by the Glee Cast
6. “Feast of Lights” by They Might Be Giants
7. “Can I Interest You in Hanukah” by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart
8. “Rock of Ages—Ma’oz Tzur” by Marc Cohn
9. “Hanuka Dance” by The Klezmatics
10. ""Nun Gimmel Heh Shin” by The LeeVees