There is good evidence that the pilgrims believed they were the new Israel and that America was the new promised land. They celebrated the feast of Tabernacle’s according to tradition which is a holiday that praises God for his goodness and provision. It is actually the last of the seven great festivals of the Jewish cycle of holidays found in Leviticus chapter 23 and commemorates the conclusion of the annual harvest season. i
During the festival of Hanukkah Jewish people thank God for the victory of the Maccabean family over the Syrian Greeks in 165 BC. The Syrian Greeks were trying to destroy the Jewish people through assimilation forcing them to speak the Greek language, embrace Greek culture and worship Greek gods. The Jewish people resisted and a small band of Maccabean guerrillas fought the Syrian Greeks between 168 and 165 BCE and won. When they arrived at the Temple in Jerusalem, according to tradition, there were two problems; the Syrian Greeks had offered a pig on the altar and so they had to dismantle the altar because it was beyond cleansing. But secondly, the eternal light only had enough oil to last for one day and it would take eight days to cure enough oil to keep the light shining without interruption.
Over the years this tradition of the eight day miracle became a vital part of Jewish life and so on Hanukkah we like eight candles over the eight day period. We also give gifts and foods like potato pancakes and in Israel we enjoy a special type of jelly doughnut. The reason we eat the pancakes and the jelly donut this because they’re made with lots of oil and once again it reminds us of God’s provision – the oil did not run out over the eight days.
The link between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah which probably will not happen again for thousands of years, if ever – is actually quite poignant. The Jewish people are thankful to God for his provision and the pilgrims had that right and that’s why they celebrated Tabernacles at the first Thanksgiving (admittedly another tradition!) to God for his provision of the new promised land. The Jewish people are also very grateful for God’s preserving them as a people and that’s why we celebrate Hanukkah.
The real link between Hanukkah and Thanksgiving and even with the Pilgrims version of Tabernacles is one of thankfulness to God. This is the great theme of both holidays. And since there is no a tradition of giving gifts on Thanksgiving – just eating well and celebrating (and watching college football) – the juxtaposition of both holidays takes nothing away from Hanukkah from a Jewish child’s perspective! They lose very little – Hanuakkah dinner might be a little unusual as we eat potato pancakes and not turkey – but the combination for most Jewish people sounds good!
As Messianic Jews and followers of Jesus the Messiah – the theme of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah focuses on our gratitude to God. As Jews, we pray a special prayer at Hanukkah called the Shehechiyanu….it reads as follows; Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.
We are happy to have reached this Thanksgiving and Hanukkah season and praise the Holy One of Israel for His mercy, grace, provision and love.