One of the great pleasures of an itinerant life is picking and choosing the festivals and celebrations of one’s host country in which one wishes, or is encouraged, to take part.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, declared a holiday by President Lincoln in 1863. A time for family and friends to gather, in remembrance of the Pilgrim’s first harvest, and celebrated by eating vast quantities of turkey and, here in Texas, fixin’s. It’s a four-day weekend, which in a country that often only guarantees two weeks holiday a year for its workers is celebration enough. A frantic scramble to get home for a fine feast, and ending with bellies extended and legs outstretched in front of the television watching ‘the game’. If home is just down the road all the better as getting across the country is a logistical nightmare, this year made worse by inclement weather in some parts. Think of John Candy and Steve Martin in the 1987 movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Arriving in America for our first stint way back before the Millennium I made it quite clear to my spouse and children Thanksgiving was the time of year when I would give thanks for a day of idleness. My argument was that I was not going to cook turkey twice in a six-week period, but if they wanted to do so I would willingly hand over the kitchen. My offer was not taken up and instead we have either taken to the road exploring this vast country, or been fortunate enough to have been invited to share the festivities with American friends.
I’m asked why I don’t throw myself into this integral part of American life and I reply that I am an interested and willing bystander, much as I was when living in Asia enjoying Thaipusum or Songkran, or in Trinidad watching skimpily clad men and women at Carnival.
I am not immune to local celebrations and have taken part in some. Loi Kratong in Thailand is without doubt one of the most enchanting festivals – thousands of little rafts decorated with candles and flowers floating down the rivers and waterways taking away the sins of the launcher – and one in which I happily participated, once I was assured I would not be treading on any Thai toes. Hogmanay in Scotland. Sinterklaus on the 5th December in The Netherlands, and others.
This year though Thanksgiving is the same day as the start of Hanukkah. The first time that has happened since 1888 and predicted, by a physicist with time on his hands, not to happen again until 79811. Apparently calendars don’t go that far out. The overlap is caused by a late Thanksgiving, in America always held on the fourth Thursday of November, and a leap year in the Jewish calendar which, and I don’t quite understand this bit, means there is an entire extra month in the year. It is being dubbed Thanksgivukkah.
I have never lived in Israel and whilst having Jewish friends have never really thought about Hanukkah, but this merging of dates has intrigued me. Both celebrations have their history in freedom from religious persecution; both encourage family gatherings and a feast. And in Texas both focus on oil.
Hanukkah, I have learned, celebrates oil by lighting a candle on the Menorah for eight consecutive nights. (You would be excused for being confused by their being nine candles on the menorah, but the ninth, the shamash, is used to light the others.) Symbolizing the recapture of the Jewish temple 2,500 years ago from King Antiochus and his Syrian-Greek forces who ordered people to renounce Judaism or face death, only to find the holy light, to be eternally lit, had only enough oil for one more day. A miracle occurred when the flame stayed alight for eight days, giving the Maccabees enough time to make more oil. It is for this reason the food prepared for Hanukkah is fried.
The Texas connection to oil is more prosaic. Apart from drilling for oil, the state holds the record for more fat fires in a single day, Thanksgiving, due to deep fried turkey.
Chefs have been scrabbling to combine the traditional feasts with suggestions of latkes made from sweet potato instead of the common white spud, or transforming the creamed corn beloved on the Thanksgiving table into Hanukkah fritters. Not to be outdone, designers have been coming up with imaginative ways to decorate the groaning table: how about draping your menorah with a Fall garland?
So I will enjoy Thanksgiving, and wish my Jewish friends Happy Hanukkah, but I’m looking forward to my favourite time of the year, Christmas. Another time of family and feasting, but my turkey will have all the trimmings rather than fixin’s.