This year's confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah is happening for the most mundane of reasons. But the holidays have more in common than you might think.
The holidays overlap in 2013 because of two conflicting calendars, both of which have been tweaked and re-tweaked over the centuries to conform to the requirements of human societies and religions. Dr. Gregory Hoffman has a fascinatingly complex explanation on the Huffington Post website: http://huff.to/1jLBcTi.
Hoffman explains that the Christian calendar is based on the sun — except that Easter is calculated from the first full moon after the spring equinox. The Jewish calendar follows the cycles of the moon — except that the months vary in length and an extra month is sometimes added so that Passover always falls in the spring. And both calendars are off by a tad less than 11 minutes each year, because a year is just under 365.25 days long, which has required adjustments from time to time.
The result: Thanksgiving, which falls on the fourth Thursday of November, and Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, overlap today for the first time in more than 100 years.
What's more, this won't happen again for something like 70,000 years — assuming anyone is still around and still observing either.
Besides the rarity of this occurrence, why should anyone care, other than American Jews who celebrate both holidays? Because both holidays, at their core, are celebrations of freedom.
The Puritans of Plymouth Colony who prepared a meal to give thanks for their first harvest in their new home had come there to escape religious persecution. They wanted to practice their faith without interference.
The Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors in the second century B.C.E., revolted against their Greek rulers who had forbidden Jewish religious practice. After defeating the Greeks and recapturing the Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, which the Greeks had desecrated. Legend has it there was only enough purified oil to light the Temple's menorah for one day, but miraculously the oil lasted eight days, long enough to prepare a new supply.
Both holidays celebrate freedom from religious persecution. It's hard to get more American than that.
Happy Thanksgiving — and Happy Hanukkah.