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Faith in Vermont: Food, Freedom, Forgiveness: A Thanksgiving Meditation

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Posted on November 27, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Well, here we are on the other side of Thanksgiving. A rather counter-cultural holiday, isn’t it? Or at least counter to what American culture has been becoming. 

To begin with, Thanksgiving seems to have resisted much of the commercialization that’s hijacked other major American holidays. Traditions may differ for some, but in my family no gifts or greeting cards are exchanged on Thanksgiving. Unless you traffic in turkeys, cranberries, or decorative gourds, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving is focused on a meal. Again, traditions differ, but most Thanksgiving celebrations involve gathering family members and friends together around a table to share food – and not food out of a box or a microwave, but food that’s been prepared by hand. For a time, many of those who sit down to a Thanksgiving meal talk to each other, presumably without electronic devices or screens. All of this – the gathering together, the conversation, spending an entire day preparing and enjoying a meal – is radical, because it happens so rarely in our fragmented, isolated, screen-focused, fast-paced society. 

And the reason we gather for this meal? It’s there in the name: giving thanks. To sit around a table and feel gratitude for what we have, right then. 

How weird is that? At no other time are we as Americans encouraged to say, “Thank you; this is enough.” 

In fact, it’s such an uncomfortable feeling that we have to counteract it by making the very next day Black Friday, when all Americans are encouraged to binge shop for everything retailers say we need to feel like we’re enough. 

There is a tension to all of this; a very American tension. A good way of uncovering this tension is simply to ask the question: What exactly are we giving thanks for on Thanksgiving? 

The first 150 years of United States history – from the initial European settlements to the Civil War – are peppered with thanksgiving celebrations and proclamations, but we tend to associate our American Thanksgiving with the harvest feast celebrated by 50 surviving Mayflower Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

The Pilgrims were grateful for religious liberty, and for the bountiful harvest they’d just taken in (thanks to a great deal of help from their Native American neighbors) after a harrowing sea voyage and a winter of illness and near-starvation that reduced their numbers by half. 

Not everyone in this country can say the same, but neither my children nor I have any idea what it’s like to spend weeks at sea fleeing religious persecution, only to land on an unknown shore and exist on a subsistence diet through the winter.  One of my daughters even started whining the day after Thanksgiving, because our still-bountiful meal of leftovers “only has three things I like!” 

This year, my daughters produced a Thanksgiving play that they’d written to be performed between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert. Titled, “Turkey Revolution,” it concluded with this stirring speech by the Turkey Chief:

We, great turkeys of destiny, have become a symbol of food for Thanksgiving. Every year one of us is taken away. Where? To the kitchen table! But we, my glorious turkeys, we will stand this injustice no more! This is an outrage! We must rise up! A…REVOLUTION!

Did I mention that this speech was delivered immediately after every single one of my daughters had eaten turkey?

But are the rest of us any more consistent than my daughters, lamenting the turkey they’d just eaten? We stage a feast imitating the Pilgrims’ thankfulness for the harvest, when most of us consume far more calories than we need every single day of the year. Is our feasting gratitude, or just more gluttony?

Thanksgiving as a national celebration began to take shape around the time of the American Revolution. In 1777, the Continental Congress issued the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving, thanking God for blessing this infant country. Additional national thanksgivings were proclaimed for various dates between 1782 and 1789, when President George Washington designated the first Thanksgiving Day – a practice that continued under all subsequent presidents (except Thomas Jefferson), until Abraham Lincoln set an annual Thanksgiving holiday for the final Thursday of November 1863. Like the First National Proclamation, Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day was a time to thank God for continuing to bless the United States, even in the midst of civil war.

If food doesn’t fill us with gratitude to the same degree it did the Pilgrims, perhaps we should follow the founding fathers in giving thanks for our country?

Based on the awkward silence that ensued when my mother made this suggestion at our Thanksgiving meal this year, patriotism may be as hard for us to grasp as a true appreciation of food. 

It might be that many of us – especially those who were born in the United States -- take freedom for granted in much the same way we do food. 

It might also be that our national narrative has become so fractured that when we think of our country, it’s hard to get a handle on what the United States even is anymore. There is a tension inherent in the very nature of this national experiment: A country made up of waves of immigrants, drawn here by the ideal of individual freedom, who began by pushing out the indigenous peoples and trafficking in slaves from elsewhere. How do you form a coherent community out of that? Ideological beauty coexisting with an often-brutal reality: That we’ve succeeded thus far seems miraculous.

What’s interesting about the original Thanksgiving proclamations I’ve read is that nearly all include a confession of national sins. Even more than giving thanks, admitting our failures seems un-American these days. But this is from George Washington:

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions….

And Abraham Lincoln: 

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

So there was a time when our country realized that humility and thankfulness are two sides of the same coin: Saying “Thanks!” is an acknowledgement that we’ve been recipients of something – food, freedom, forgiveness – that we didn’t obtain through our own efforts alone. The Pilgrims confessed that they survived thanks to God and the Native Americans; our founding fathers admitted that our country sometimes screwed up and needed to apologize. 

I can get behind a Thanksgiving celebration of the gratitude that springs from receiving help and forgiveness. Can my country? 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one fiesty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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