National Geographic Daily News
Photo showing a painting of Pilgrims moving in a procession through a forest.

Pilgrims moving in a procession through a forest, circa 1750.

Photograph by Lambert, Getty Images

Diane Cole

for National Geographic

Published November 22, 2013

Why is Thanksgiving 2013 different from all others?

Because this year, it's not just Thanksgiving. It's also Thanksgivukkah.

For the first time since 1888—and the last time until the year 79,811—the first day of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah will coincide with the American observance of Thanksgiving. By contrast, Hanukkah—which commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean military victory over the Syrians in 168 B.C.—far more typically occurs closer to Christmas, in December.

(Read "Thanksgiving 2013: What to Know About Turkey Day.")

Thanksgivukkah, as this year's double-holiday convergence has been dubbed, is happening because of the difference between two calendars.

The date of Thanksgiving is determined by the Gregorian calendar, which is solar, while Hanukkah is set by the Hebrew calendar, which is lunisolar. In the lunisolar calendar, months are calculated according to the moon and the years according to the sun, with leap months added every few years to keep the seasons in sync. The different calendars explain why Jewish holidays—which occur every year on the same day in the Hebrew calendar—fall on different days of the Gregorian, or Western, calendar followed in America.

But there's another wrinkle. The Hebrew calendar is slipping "ever so slowly" behind the solar calendar, at the rate of about four days every thousand years, says physicist Jonathan Mizrahi, of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although the Hebrew calendar system, which was set over a thousand years ago, is a "very good calendar," says Mizrahi, "there are imperfections."

That slippage means that 200 years from now, Hanukkah won't ever begin earlier than November 29. Because November 28 is the latest day that Thanksgiving can fall, the two holidays won't overlap again until the year 79,811.

But according to Mizrahi, the far-off date is tongue-in-cheek because Jewish law requires that the holidays fall during specific seasons. The 79,811 date is predicated on the assumption that no adjustments will be made in the Hebrew calendar. "And that can't happen because once the holidays shift sufficiently far from the seasons in which they should occur, the calendar will have to be modified," he says.

Still, this year's Thanksgivukkah is a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. Indeed, the infrequency of the double-holiday convergence makes such rare astronomical phenomena as the transit of Venus—which last occurred in 2012 and won't reappear until 2117—almost common, by comparison.

(Read "Transit of Venus 2012—Sun Show Will Be Last for a Century.")

Connection Beyond Coincidence

Even beyond coincidence, the convergence serves as a reminder of the "profound connection" between the origins and meaning of both holidays, says David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The 17th-century Pilgrims "quite clearly modeled their celebration" of thanks for crops that would sustain them through the winter on the biblical fall harvest holiday known as the Festival of the Tabernacles, or Sukkot, he says.

Moreover, Hanukkah itself was a belated celebration of Sukkot. Unable to observe Sukkot at the proper time because they were in the midst of fighting, the Maccabees celebrated instead at the time of the rededication of the Temple, which is Hanukkah. Hanukkah begins on 25 Kislev, which is a bit more than two months after Sukkot, which begins on 15 Tishrei. "So their coming together is totally appropriate," Kraemer concludes.

Also appropriate is a certain overlap in menu traditions—think potatoes (whether mashed, dotted with marshmallows, or grated and shaped into pancakes). The potato commonality has to do with which local foods are available and in season at the time of the fall harvest in New England, where Thanksgiving originated, and in Eastern Europe, where the ancestors of the majority of American Jews came from.

Avoiding the "December Dilemma"

Is there an unexpected benefit to Thanksgivukkah? Because of their common theme of gratitude, pairing Hanukkah with Thanksgiving, rather than Christmas, calls forth no equivalent to the so-called "December Dilemma," when interfaith families strive to honor differing religious traditions and beliefs.

On the contrary. Back in 1888—the only other time Hanukkah and Thanksgiving converged—the weekly Jewish American newspaper, The American Hebrew, "encouraged readers to enthusiastically embrace both holidays, because Hanukkah is itself a holiday of Thanksgiving," says Dianne Ashton, author of the recently published book, Hanukkah in America: A History. The message was, "when it's Thanksgiving, you can completely join in with American society" to celebrate this ecumenical holiday, she says. "But not with Christmas, because it is a Christian holiday."

Ultimately, "Thanksgiving is a civic holiday with spiritual overtones," says Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. Regardless of your religion or lack of faith, the holiday "speaks to gratitude, to forces greater than ourselves, and calls upon us to help others," she points out.

That this year Thanksgiving happens to coincide with a religious holiday simply makes all the more obvious the need common to all humans in all cultures to express gratitude and say thanks. And that holds true whatever name you give the holiday.

15 comments
Lori Boyd
Lori Boyd

Like Suzin, I also stress the common theme of religious freedom to my students. I hadn't realized Hanukkah's relationship with Sukkot. Thanks for the info!

Khai Yow
Khai Yow

in all things...give THANKS...

Jeanne Sales
Jeanne Sales

More than I wanted to know, but I am half Jewish, and I found it interesting.

Eric Presser
Eric Presser

This article is wrong. No one actually checked the facts. It is a nice hoax to state facts like 79,811 years, but is is true ? There are two dates of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coinciding after 1888 that every American celebrated. We have November 30, 1899 (5th night) and November 28, 1918 (1st Night). Some states celebrated also in 1945 and in 1956 both on November 29th. We have two dates coming up in the next 200 years, both first nights. We have November 27, 2070 and November 28, 2165. So please check your facts. And also state your source since it is WRONG. My source is http://blog.pjvoice.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=3612. Cheers.

Suzin Glickman
Suzin Glickman

Thank you! Your article address the appropriate connection of re-dedication, thankfulness and the connection to Sukkot and Harvest of the two holidays.  I thought, though the article would point out  the connection the Pilgrims have with the Macabees. Although the Macabees stayed around and fought for their right to practice their religion and The Pilgrims went elsewhere to practice their religion, the two groups are very much connected in my mind. Both stood for the fight against assimilation. They did not want to be told how to pray , how to dress, how to interact in society. Viva La Difference! As a teacher, this is the aspect I point out to my students.

Dana Wilson
Dana Wilson

So, what will replace the Hannukah Bush? ... A Thanukkah Pumpkin maybe? 

Charles Greenberg
Charles Greenberg

In 2070 Thanksgiving should be the first night of hannukah (as jewish holidays start with evening and end with day)

Jorge Pedro Calcagno
Jorge Pedro Calcagno

Rara ocasión en la que el día de gracias no coincide con el día de givukkah. Interesante analisis de la situacion.

Share

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Latest News Video

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »