Like everything else during coronatide, Thanksgiving is a day filled with tough choices. Will we travel? Will we break bread with extended family members? Will we share sacrificial love by staying away from them?
Last week the SALT Project posted a brief theology of Thanksgiving reminding me that Thanksgiving, while even more complicated this year, has always been a complex holiday.
Was the first Thanksgiving meal in present-day Massachusetts, complete with buckled, wide-brimmed hats, in 1621? Or was it an English celebration (different hats!) on the shores of Virginia, in 1619? Or how about a Spanish gathering in what became Texas, in 1598 — or Florida, in 1565?
The reasons for those celebrations varied, of course. The English colonists in Virginia, for example, declared the day a commemoration of their arrival, thanking God for safe passage across a forbidding ocean; likewise, the Spanish explorers thanked God for survival. On the other hand, after a 1637 massacre of Native Americans, the governor of Plymouth wrote that Thanksgiving Days would be “in honor of the bloody victory.” In 1789, President George Washington declared a national Day of Thanksgiving to thank God for the birth of a new nation. And the current annual date in late November — which is far too late, after all, for a “harvest festival” in New England! — wasn’t established until Abraham Lincoln’s declaration in 1863, explicitly giving thanks for the Union’s military successes in the Civil War.
So the holiday we inherit is a complex, morally ambivalent amalgam of different kinds of gratitude: for good harvest, for safe passage, for colonial conquest, for military victory….But there’s perhaps no better day than Thanksgiving to reflect on the astounding power of gratitude itself — and accordingly, to commit ourselves to cultivating it more intentionally in the coming year.
Yes, this day is complicated. And this year, these complications are compounded by the fact that many of us are not celebrating with our typical traditions. Gone are the large family gatherings and the giant turkey cooking all day in the oven. Gone are the intergenerational touch family football games. Gone are the community wide ecumenical Thanksgiving services in a public park. As with all of coronatide, it’s easy to focus on all the things we cannot do this Thanksgiving. In our house we are going to reframe this mindset by focusing on thankfulness and gratitude.
We know that gratitude has been shown to help kids and adults be resilient through tough times. Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to focus on gratitude as spiritual discipline. While we may not be lacing up our sneakers for an early morning Turkey Trot, we can lace them up and head outside for a Gratitude Scavenger Hunt. We’ll search for something that reminds us of a person we love and something we love to smell, something that makes a beautiful sound and something that makes us laugh.
If you are are missing the friends and family you’d typically spend Thanksgiving with, send them a card letting them know why you are thankful for them. Art is certainly comforting for the creator, and this note will offer a lovely mailbox surprise to your loved one next week. It’s a win win! While those art supplies are out, you might turn your old political candidate yard signs into thanksgiving signs. What essential workers, teachers or neighbors might you thank in a public way?
When our family finally gathers around the table for our Thanksgiving meal, we will offer this Litany of Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer.
Rather than focusing on who is not seated around our table, we will express gratitude for those who are. You might also check out the collection of Thanksgiving prayers and table graces posted on Building Faith’s website, too.
How are you observing Thanksgiving?
For what are you grateful this year?