Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. At the end of the fall harvest, it celebrates the abundance of God's creation, and it draws us deeper...
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. At the end of the fall harvest, it celebrates the abundance of God’s creation, and it draws us deeper into gratitude.
It’s simpler than Christmas. No need to search for gifts or to book an airline flight with the attendant long lines and weather delays. Most Thanksgiving travel seems nearby — “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.”
Thanksgiving certainly draws us into a religious realm deeper than the Fourth of July with all its picnics, boisterous parades and fireworks, even though the Fourth is also a time for gratitude for the freedom we experience as a gift of God in this great country.
Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) and Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) honored those who had served and died in World War I and the Civil War. At the time of their inauguration they certainly expressed our yearning for peace — our prayer for the peace that only God could bring about. But now these holidays have transitioned into the worthy realms of honoring all veterans and commemorating all family members who have gone before us.
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And our newest holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. has the special significance of confronting racism and advancing an accepting, inclusive society, fulfilling the claim “all men (and, of course, women) are created equal” that was envisioned, but only poorly realized, at the time of the Declaration of Independence. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech recalled for our time the “promissory note” that would “guarantee the Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness” for all. King’s speech delivered on the Washington Mall in 1963 has itself become a founding document of our national heritage.
All these holidays have special resonance, and all of them have some echoes of religious or spiritual overtones. But Thanksgiving remains my favorite.
For me personally growing up in North Dakota, Thanksgiving brings back visions of turkey and dressing, pheasant, wild duck, sweet potatoes, green beans, turnips, red cranberries, mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, and pumpkin pie laced with pecans. Most often it was the first time that we kids could go ice skating — after the cold had frozen the shallow slough created by the overflow of water from the horse trough.
In later years, after attending the Catholic Thanksgiving Mass, we hosted the great family gathering at our house. I recall my mother’s incredible energy in preparing the turkey dinner for 50. It was an amazing feat.
The origins of Thanksgiving seem lost in time. Legend overlays whatever actually occasioned it. Certainly the Pilgrim fathers and mothers welcoming the Native Americans who taught these naive foreigners how to feast on the abundance of game all around them is the most vivid image. Later President Lincoln, typically, in his acknowledgment of divine providence, established it as a national holiday.
Whenever I meditate on Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s prayer recorded in Markings: “For all that has been ‘thanks.’ For all that will be ‘yes.’ ” It’s a tremendous prayer — simple and profound. Hammarskjöld embraces the past with gratitude, and he welcomes whatever future God might have in store. This remarkable Swedish humanitarian was on a mission of peace and reconciliation to post-colonial Congo in 1961 when his plane mysteriously crashed, killing him.
What’s also forgotten is how the original Thanksgiving was a time of penitence and reconciliation of neighbor with neighbor and of humanity with God.
How fitting this underlying theme of reconciliation would be in these postelection days after bruising battles, spurious accusations, fudging of the truth, and rancorous political punditry. Should such reconciliation break forth we would be truly grateful. We would palpably experience God at work among us.
Let us pray that it might begin.
Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org