Chanukah is over, but the holiday season of which it is often thought to be part is just getting started. In twenty-first century America, an “early” Chanukah — early by the calculations of the Gregorian calendar; the Hebrew date doesn’t change — can be somewhat disorienting. This year’s disorientation was magnified by the unusual juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and the first day of Chanukah — a coincidence that the experts assure us will not happen again for many thousands of years.
Thanksgiving is unique, a purely American holiday, and the only one that most Americans actually celebrate in a manner that bears even a passing resemblance to its purpose. The ostensible purposes of Memorial Day and Labor Day have been lost, leaving us with two three day weekends whose sole significance is that they mark the beginning and end of the summer beach season. Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays have been merged into Presidents’ Day, leaving some confusion as to whether we are celebrating those two great Presidents, or American Presidents in general. (It doesn’t much matter; we don’t pay much attention in either case.) The only other American holiday that even comes close is the Fourth of July, but although most Americans still remember what that holiday celebrates, few of us actually celebrate it in a manner that bears any relationship to its ostensible purpose.
Thanksgiving Day is different. Most Americans do celebrate the day by getting together with their families for a celebratory meal that usually includes turkey. Echoing the iconic (if mostly mythic) story of the Pilgrim thanksgiving, we express gratitude for the abundance with which we have been blessed, recognizing that this abundance is the product of both our own efforts and God’s providence. Yes, I know, critics of the holiday point out that the conventional story of the first thanksgiving is ahistorical and is intended to whitewash the troubled relationship between the Europeans who settled in what they called the New World and the native Americans (whom we used to call American Indians), for whom it was not so new.
That criticism has some validity but is mostly beside the point. The focus of Thanksgiving should not be on the manner in which the European settlers in North America, beginning in Massachusetts in the 1620’s, achieved success, but rather on their recognition that their own efforts were only part of the reason for that success. The holiday’s message — that it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy and even celebrate the fruits of our labors, as long as we acknowledge that without the blessings of Divine providence those labors would come to naught — is a quintessentially American one — and a quintessentially Jewish approach as well.
In recent years, the celebration of that message has been threatened from an unexpected quarter. I’m not referring to the prophets of political correctness, who take the ahistoricism of the conventional Pilgrim thanksgiving story as the jumping off point for a revisionist counter-narrative of American history as a whole. Rather, the current threat to the meaning and message of Thanksgiving comes in the guise of a tradition of far more recent vintage, which we have come to call Black Friday.
I am well aware, of course, that while the name Black Friday is of relatively recent vintage, the day after Thanksgiving has long been considered as the start of the Christmas shopping season. In 1939, after all, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving a week earlier specifically to extend the Christmas shopping season in the hope of stimulating the economy. That three-year experiment failed, and Congress ended it by a bill passed in late December of 1941, by which point Roosevelt was presumably preoccupied by a minor incident involving the naval base at Pearl Harbor.
It’s hard to blame retailers, whether in Roosevelt’s day or our own, for doing whatever they can to stimulate sales during the shopping season. For most of those in retail businesses, a successful Christmas season is essential to remaining solvent. In the last few years, however, Black Friday seems to have gotten out of hand. A few years back, in one of the major shopping malls in a New York suburb, the bargain hunting hordes created such a frenzy that a shopper was actually trampled to death.
That’s an extreme example, of course, but lesser signs of a loss of perspective are more common. Some retailers have moved their Black Friday openings back to midnight so as not to miss a single minute of shopping time. In some places, eager shoppers line up overnight so as to be among the first to enter the hallowed halls of the local department store. Increasingly, store employees are being asked to work on Thanksgiving Day, in preparation for the expected hordes of shoppers the next day. We have not yet reached the point at which Black Friday overshadows Thanksgiving Day itself, but we seem to be moving in that direction.
There’s an obvious irony in tying Thanksgiving so closely to the start of the shopping season. The messages of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, after all, are to some extent antithetical. Thanksgiving is about gratitude; Black Friday is about envy. Thanksgiving asks us to focus on what we have while Black Friday impels us to focus on what we don’t yet have but want — or can be persuaded to want. Black Friday has not yet succeeded in overshadowing Thanksgiving, but it has a natural advantage: Thanksgiving lasts only one day while the Christmas shopping season that Black Friday ushers in continues (in somewhat moderated form, to be sure) for a month.
Chanukah, of course, has an identity crisis all its own. In the public mind — including, all too often the Jewish public mind — it is seen as the Jewish Christmas, subsumed into an amorphous holiday season that is increasingly devoid of non-commercial meaning. To many Jewish parents, Chanukah has become an easy way to evade the so-called “December Dilemma.” Instead of forcing parents to explain to their children that we are a minority in a country whose majority belongs to a religious tradition that is not ours, the prominent presence of Chanukah as part of a commercialized and vaguely defined holiday season has made it possible for Jewish children to avoid feeling left out of the seasonal festivities while enabling their parents to resist the temptation of religious syncretism.
This year, however, the calendar didn’t cooperate. A week after Black Friday and with three shopping weeks to go until Christmas, Chanukah is over. In this year’s mad rush of consumerism, committed Jews will have to be conscientious objectors. Parents will have to bite the bullet and tell their children that we have no holiday in the latter part of December this year, so while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the sights and sounds of the season, we must do so from the outside.
The calendrically mandated decoupling of Chanukah from the amorphous “holiday season” is not unique to this year. The complexities of the Jewish calendar result in our ending Chanukah early with some frequency. What was unique this year was Chanukah’s actually falling on Thanksgiving Day.
That calendrical coincidence was fortuitous, however. Thanksgiving is actually a much better fit with Chanukah than Christmas could ever be. Both are holidays of gratitude in which we recognize that even those blessings that appear to be the result of our own efforts — whether a successful harvest or a successful rebellion — are possible only with God’s help.
In recent years, some Christians have expressed frustration with what they see as the watering down of their religious holiday by those who do not share their religious values. Their feelings are understandable, but they often seem to be aiming at the wrong target. If they want to restore the primacy of the religious dimension of Christmas, the excesses of Black Friday would be a good place to start. Surely the commercialization of Christmas is a greater threat to its religious significance than any accommodation of religious minorities.