NEW YORK — When the giant balloon of SpongeBob wearing a red Santa hat reached the corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street, the crowd packing the sidewalk on this cold, crisp Thanksgiving Day cheered and clapped and shouted “SpongeBob” in rhythmic unison.
Fifteen minutes and three marching bands later, a large float of a blue dreidel resting on a platform resembling a golden Hanukkah coin passed by. Here, the reaction was somewhat different. “It’s a dreidel,” a mother in a woolen beanie explained to her daughter, capturing the parade on her cellphone.
Hanukkah and its symbols have become a staple of American popular culture, but rarely do they converge with Thanksgiving, a national holiday that American Jews hold particularly dear, creating the new 2013 hybrid holiday of Thanksgivukkah. This fuzzy combo, everyone knows, will not occur again for over 70,000 years.
Alex Herko, a marketing student from Burlington, Vermont, immediately recognized the outsize toy as it drifted down Avenue of the Americas. He said that for the average American, the dreidel may even be better known as a Jewish symbol than the Star of David.
“Even being Catholic, everybody knows the song ‘Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay,’ ” Herko said. “I can distinctly remember making dreidels in the third or fourth grade.”
Thanksgiving was first celebrated by English pilgrims in Plymouth, in what is currently Massachusetts, in 1621. Originally a celebration of harvest, president George Washington defined the fist nationwide celebration on November 26, 1789, as a day of prayer “acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, said that despite its rarity, the connection between Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is much more natural than the more common seasonal convergence of Hanukkah and Christmas.
“Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of American holidays,” Sarna told The Times of Israel. “It is centered on family and food, two motifs well-appreciated by Jews, and also celebrates giving thanks — a very Jewish notion.”
In the early years of the United States, Thanksgiving was imbued with religious meaning; celebrated on different days in different states, or not marked at all. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, was opposed to the government telling people when to say thanks, Sarna said.
Some American politicians emphasized the Christian character of Thanksgiving. James Henry Hammond, governor of South Carolina between 1842 and 1844, issued distinctly Christian holiday proclamations, causing the Jews in his state to abstain from celebrating it.
But that changed under Abraham Lincoln, who set the last Thursday of November as the official nationwide holiday date in a presidential proclamation in 1863. Lincoln’s decision — influenced by a campaign by author Sarah Hale in the first half of the 19th century — made the holiday more inclusive, helping Jews adopt it as their own. The number of Jews in the US mushroomed by the time Lincoln came to power, Sarna noted, from just 3,000 in 1820 to 150,000 in 1860.
“By Lincoln’s time, Jews have more clout in America and he is deeply sensitive to this,” Sarna said. “His Thanksgiving proclamations were not Christian.”
Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated in a way that Sarna describes as “religious without being religiously particularistic.” God is still evoked by US presidents, but it’s viewed as legitimate mainstream discourse: inclusive, not exclusive.
“Naturally, people who don’t believe in God aren’t happy, but in the American setting they don’t get much attention. These are ‘civil religion’ proclamations,” continued Sarna.
In his Thanksgiving proclamation this year, President Barack Obama linked the essence of Hanukkah to that of Thanksgiving.
“Like the Pilgrims, the Maccabees at the center of the Hanukkah story made tremendous sacrifices so they could practice their religion in peace,” he said. “In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they reclaimed their historic homeland.”
But 18-year-old Leona, a student from Long Branch, New Jersey, shopping at one of the few open shops near Times Square, said that she saw little connection between the idea of Hanukkah and that of Thanksgiving. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who came to the US in the 1940s and ’50s, she said her family did not celebrate Thanksgiving even though she herself was thankful for the freedom of religion given to Jews in America.
“My home is not here, it’s in Israel,” Leona said. “I’m just here temporarily, until Moshiach (the Messiah) comes.”
Nevertheless, Sarna of Brandeis said that the dreidel float at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was not merely an expression of Macy’s past Jewish ownership, but also of an American society at ease with Judeo-religious symbols in the public domain.
“Being inclusive is usually accepted,” Sarna said. “Americans are happy to see Judaism included and not happy when people want to ban Christmas.”