Recently, two things occurred that got me thinking about how we celebrate Thanksgiving. Allow me to spend some time with the first occurrence.
A few weeks ago, I had a friendly debate with a colleague from Canada about the celebration of Thanksgiving in the U.S. versus Canada.
While there is much I can’t bring myself to appreciate in their celebration (oyster-based stuffing or going back to work the day after?), there are some pluses to the second Monday of October versus the fourth Thursday of November.
There are some obvious differences. A few easily lend themselves to a good-natured debate. October weather is better and the fall colors more beautiful. October is closer to the actual harvest and best of all, there is no such thing as Black Friday sales!
I am sure there is a reason the late November date was chosen, but as I reflected on it, it does seem a bit of an odd choice. For Catholics, November begins with the deep solemnity of All Saints and the near-mournfulness of All Souls. Parishes across the country start the month with the intention of having a Month of Remembrance or a Month of Memorial.
At the beginning of November the landscape is still somewhat colorful and the air crisp. But, within days the trees are barren, the grass is brown and the air is downright cold. By the end of November, the only colors to be found are in “holiday” catalogs. Even the listings of thanksgiving at family gatherings, quickly give way to a weekend of children making lists for St. Nick or adults picking names for Secret Santa exchanges.
I am not sure about you, but it seems to me that much conspires to make it hard to muster the feelings of thankfulness that this civil holiday calls from us. Then again, maybe the effort to find the thanks, and to express the thanks, makes our November thanksgiving all the more meaningful.
The second part of my reflections began shortly after my discussion about Thanksgiving way up north. I saw again an award-winning photo of a boy receiving, from a marine officer, the flag that had just draped his father’s casket. The boy looks to be maybe 8 years old.
He is wearing that suit which he will “grow into” — that suit we all see at first Communions. The Marine officer is on one knee, looking the boy directly in the eyes. The boy works to stand up straight and tall, and to fight back tears. The picture is titled simply, “Son, on behalf of a grateful nation…”
Gnawing at me is that notion of “a grateful nation.” What does that mean to us? What does it, and will it, mean to that young boy? In November we can appreciate the mournfulness of the moment pictured. In November, we can feel the barren landscape of loss and loneliness. In November we may feel the pressure to move within and hibernate with thoughts of one’s self being alone in the world.
Does going around the Thanksgiving table and listing the individual things each is thankful for, while good, actually miss an important point? Is it too much about self? Thanksgiving is a national holiday intended to press each of us to bring to the forefront of our minds why we are a grateful nation. It is good to realize that we might be a family, parish, community, even a nation of accumulated individual thankfulness. But, do we understand and express that for which we are communally and collectively thankful?
From its founding, the United States has seen itself as a city set upon a hill, a nation benefitting from some degree of Divine Providence. One need not neglect our country’s many flaws and numerous challenges when expressing deep thankfulness and sincere gratefulness for the fabric of a society that can work to correct flaws and overcome challenges.
As Catholics, we should realize we are specially equipped to move beyond the long lists sent to Santa or even the narrow lists of personal thanks. We find in common prayer, common worship and in shared sacraments, the source and summit of our thanksgiving. Is not Eucharist, by definition, an act of thanksgiving?
Our thanks on this Thanksgiving Day should be about the things that hold us together. We should lift up in prayer and praise those gifts from God which keep us in strong families, connect us in faith-filled parishes, and make us a grateful nation.
For this Thanksgiving dinner, as you go around the table, maybe answer not what “I” am thankful for. Instead, work to give a genuine and accurate answer as to what “we” are thankful for. In that proclamation we will be a herald of hope.