I suspect that I am not the only person for whom Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday. Most other national holidays (Christmas excepted) are, for me, straightforward. There may be family traditions or expectations around the others, but they do not seem nearly as freighted as those around the “holiday season.”
There is always a swirl of emotion and sentimentality as we gather as families that are ever changing as the circle of our loved ones moves through time. Old recipes and new faces are all part of the table. Every couple of decades the people at the head and foot of the table change and the centers of our lives shift just a little.
The holiday season has been so sentimentalized and loaded with expected or ideal feelings that it can be exhausting to those who want to make it so. However, to expect joy, for example, at Thanksgiving is to limit its power in our lives. There will no doubt be great joy around the table as family and friends that do not often get together share a sacred meal together. But there will also be memories, hard discussions, rending and repair of relationships. It is all part of life together.
Given all of this, here are some thoughts that have helped me manage the massive beauty and complexity of both thanksgiving and Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is about relationships. That means that it is about “us” and not “me” or “you.” We are thankful for our families, or whomever is gathered around the table with us — be it one other or a hundred. It is a way to say, just like those who celebrated in the 17th century, “here we are.” Just sharing food with thanksgiving is a demonstration of common struggle and setting aside for a moment everything else to show that this is the most important thing right now.
There is a relationship between hardship and being thankful. Sometimes we need to stop, take a breath, and share a feast, some football (on TV or in the backyard), and a fire. Every gathered group will have stories to tell of accomplishments and failures, of joy and sorrow. All of those things make us who we are as people and as families — they can be received with thanks because they can be shared, overcome together, and incorporated into the stories we tell around the table. I remember all varieties — tears and laughter, missing people and surprise visitors, arguments and reconciliations.
Being thankful requires understanding that something has been done for us that we could not possibly have done without help. Because of this, I believe Thanksgiving becomes more meaningful over the years for most people. Here, we learn that family is not a given, it takes effort, forgiveness, patience, kindness, tolerance, and love. In the Old Testament there were sacrifices of thanksgiving in which the first fruits of the bounty that God provided was dedicated to him. That is not a bad place to start for us today. Recognizing all of the effort made by everyone around the table to make a gathering possible should humble us enough to be thankful.
Everyone around the table should be there because they want to be, not from expectation or pressure — although if that can be done with maturity and grace it can be a beautiful experience. Otherwise, we learn that entitlement is a vicious, sinister master that siphons off our ability to be thankful and feeds our selfish nature and hurts those to whom we owe so much.
Being thankful is not restful. It takes some effort and motivates us to action on behalf of others. We expend such energy because we want to honor others with either gifts or presence. It takes love to cook for two days, even if one enjoys it. It takes love to drive 12 hours one way or brave the crowded airports for a long weekend.
Thanksgiving is about the presence of all our family. We miss those who cannot be there — yet they are still with us. They are with us in traditions, the pumpkin pie recipe, and the chair they sat in. They made us who we are, and it is good to look for those things in their lives for which we can be thankful.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:12-15, RSV).