The marketing frenzy surrounding “Thanksgivukkah” – a term coined by a Massachusetts woman for this year’s rare convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah – reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon:
Leaning on the railing of a ship bound for the New World, one Pilgrim says to another: “My immediate goal is religious freedom, but my long-term plan is to go into real estate.”
The joke works because as every schoolchild learns, millions have come to these shores drawn by the promise of religious freedom – and once here, immigrants have used that freedom to build a free enterprise system that is the envy of the world.
That quintessential American spirit was on full display this week as the marketplace filled with everything from Thanksgivukkah cards to yarmulkes with Pilgrim belt buckles. My favorite Thanksgivukkah entrepreneur is the 9-year-old who came up with a turkey-shaped menorah called “Menurkey” and then got it funded through Kickstarter.
Beyond the fun and hype, however, is the vitally important causal link between freedom from oppression, especially in matters of conscience, and freedom to innovate and prosper. As one of the Thanksgivukkah T-shirts puts it: “8 Days of Light, Liberty & Latkes.”
Both holidays are rooted in stories about the struggle for religious freedom. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in the 2nd century BCE over the army of a Syrian king who had profaned the Temple and outlawed Judaism. And Thanksgiving has its origins in 17th century celebrations by the Pilgrims of Plymouth who came to what is now Massachusetts seeking freedom from religious persecution.
But neither holiday marks a lasting triumph for religious freedom. Rome eventually conquers Jerusalem and re-subjugates the Jews. The Pilgrims and Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony do protect religious freedom, but only for themselves and not for others.
Not until Roger Williams founds Rhode Island in 1635 does religious freedom find a true and lasting home in America. Exiled from Massachusetts Bay for advocating liberty of conscience, Williams created the first society on earth that fully separated church from state and guaranteed free exercise of religion for all people.
Imagine the shock and amazement of the first boatload of Jewish families to land in Rhode Island. Unwelcome in most places, barely tolerated in others, Jews in Europe and the Americas had long suffered persecution and discrimination.
But when Jewish families reached Rhode Island in 1658, not only were they permitted to settle there – they were guaranteed complete freedom to practice their faith as full citizens of the colony.
Today, the twin principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” essential for religious freedom in Rhode Island are enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, undergirding humanity’s boldest and most successful experiment in freedom of conscience.
Of course, we have often failed to live up to our own principles and ideals. Anti-Semitism persists, Islamophobia is on the rise, nativism keeps rearing its ugly head, and Native Americans are still asking when religious freedom will fully apply to them.
But this Thanksgivukkah we can be grateful – very grateful – that in a world torn apart by sectarian conflicts and ethnic divides, the United States stands out as a sign of hope that people can, in fact, live together with deep religious differences.
By the time Thanksgiving and Hanukkah converge again in 79,000 years (according to one estimate being bandied about on the Internet), the “Thanksgivukkah” trademark will have probably expired.
But if we keep working at it, the American experiment in liberty will long endure.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: religiousfreedomeducation.org. Email: [email protected].