A few years ago Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving, leading creative types to designate the convergence of two holidays Thanksgivukkah, but that date was not the only time Thanksgiving coincides with a Jewish holiday. In case you didn’t know, Canada celebrates its Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October, which this year was October 14th, also the first day of Sukkot.
Thanksgiving is a much better match with Sukkot than Hanukkah. In fact, Sukkot is itself the Jewish holiday of Thanksgiving, or more properly, one of the Jewish holidays of Thanksgiving. All three of our pilgrimage holidays – Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot – are celebrations of the harvest.
Why do we need three Thanksgiving holidays when the US and Canada make do with one? The Jewish holidays are keyed to the agricultural calendar of the land of Israel where different crops are harvested at different times. Grapes were brought in around Sukkot, barley around Passover and wheat around Shavuot.
Perhaps a better question should be, why do the US and Canada only have one Thanksgiving? The foods that we celebrate, whether on the second Monday in October or the fourth Thursday in November, are all fall produce – pumpkins, apples, cranberries. Surely we could celebrate the fantastic fruits and vegetables our countries produce the rest of the year. I myself would love a holiday centered around the peach in late summer.
There is certainly a tradition around the US where towns that are known for a particular kind of produce have a big celebration of their specialty when its in season. Growing up in Texas, the Poteet Strawberry Festival was always popular. Perhaps this was the origin of the Jewish harvest holidays: the farmers in Judah looking to promote their grapes invited people into booths to enjoy some local wine.
It’s not just the three pilgrimage festivals that remind us of the earth’s bounty. Hanukkah, the festival of lights, is generally thought to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks, but there probably is a harvest connection too. Olives in Israel are harvested in December and ancient olive presses, where the precious oil for light was produced, are found indoors or in caves because by that time the weather has turned. This is in contrast to grape presses, which were out in the open air because they were used when the weather was still hot.
The cycle of the seasons were a critical part of our ancestors lives, something we have somewhat lost in a world where we can eat a fresh peach in the middle of winter (although in my opinion it’s taste is not likely to be worth the expense or effort). Our holidays of Thanksgiving help us connect to the land which sustains us and which we are obliged to protect for future generations to enjoy.