THE INCREDIBLE DISAPPEARING THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY
I love Thanksgiving. It has long been one of my favorite holidays stretching back to when I was a little kid. It was a holiday I loved probably even more than Christmas. There ware a couple of reasons for this: as a kid Thanksgiving meant time off from school; although I liked school, a two-day holiday in the middle of the week was great. Thanksgiving also meant gathering together and eating lots of great food. And everyone was involved in getting the meal ready and setting the table. Often you were with people who were normally at your dinner table, and that could make for fun and/or interesting arguments. And most notably, on Thanksgiving you did not nave to buy gifts. It wasn’t required or expected. So Thanksgiving had all of the wonders of a big deal holiday and few of the drawbacks. I loved it. And as I grew older this idea of everyone pausing their regular lives and gathering together to express some sort of “gratitude” came to mean more and more to me. Thanksgiving gradually became an important way for me to look at the world and my role in it.
Recently it seems as if Thanksgiving is having a hard time of it in our culture, at least in our most visible media and popular culture. Over the last few years I have seen it become well nigh invisible in commercials, TV references, and even on the little bits of social media I observe. Each year it seems we have Halloween and then jump over Thanksgiving to get to the December holidays, and more importantly, buying things. Christmas sales and specials started appearing this year BEFORE Halloween. Black Friday sales have gotten tons of mentions already, but the day before Black Friday-the day we supposedly express our sincere gratitude for all that we have-hardly draws a mention anymore. I guess there is not a lot of money to be made on it in comparison to the winter holidays; restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries remind you to get your orders in on time, but that is about it. To the culture at large it doesn’t mean as much as it once did. While we definitely still recognize it, our culture doesn’t spend much public (and billable) time talking about it anymore. That saddens me, and not just because it is one of my favorite holidays.
It saddens me because downplaying this day seems to me to be downplaying some part of our basic humanity. Thanksgiving is one of the most uniquely human occurrences in our lives; it is one of those holidays that may well mark us as a different type of life form on this earth. As far as we know, dogs, protozoa, trees, beetles and other living tings do not develop long lasting group rituals to express this thing we call, “gratitude.” Humans do. And we have been doing it all over the planet and at all different times and in tons of different ways forever. Expressing thanks is one of the most universal of things we humans do, and it is something that people from all faith traditions, and even from no faith traditions at all, do and have done virtually forever. It has been observed by every culture, by every ethnic group, in every time period, and just about everywhere on the planet. It is an important part of what makes us “us.”
This idea of expressing gratitude is something humans have done since prehistory. The return of wild herbs and plants for the pre-agricultural migrating societies; the running of the fish again in the rivers and streams; the return of birds and eggs and animals to trap and to hunt; the seasonal changes in weather and climate; all of these would have been things our hunting and gathering ancestors hoped and prayed for, and they would have found ways to give “thanks” for them when they occurred. There was a definite perceived link between what humans did and whether of not these resources returned, so group rituals were developed to try to give humans a better chance of influencing the odds. Then when agriculture developed, this process reached new levels of intensity. Yes, agriculture meant humans could stay in one place, but that stability of place required humans to do a hell of a lot of hard work. Gathering and planting of seeds, building shelter, defending territory, watering and nurturing the crops, fighting the weather, harvesting crops-these and more factors of agricultural life were all things that demanded a huge amount of labor, a lot of working together, and plenty of luck or divine help. And things still might not work. So the rituals of giving thanks became an important and necessary part of spring planting and fall harvest festivals all over the world and still are. Although in our modern civilized world many of us are far removed from the actual work that goes into sustaining a civilization, our societies today are still resting on and dependent upon that same infrastructure. No, it doesn’t take as many people to do it, and much of the work can seem invisible. But if we look closely we see that it is still there and still necessary. And as we all know when a traffic light is out or our stove breaks or our computer acts up, even with all of this technological “advancement” we still need luck and maybe some divine help.
So I want to take time to acknowledge that simple act of expressing gratitude-of acknowledging that we all need other people and more than just ourselves to make our way through this world and this life. We need others’ help and assistance. And every now and then we have to formally acknowledge that. The human in us needs to stop and say, “Thanks” to some spirit or some ones or some things outside of and/or beyond ourselves. Otherwise we may misread our place in the world and think we did all of this by ourselves. So in addition to the great food and the family reunions and the football games and the parades, I hope you have a happy, thoughtful, and grateful Thanksgiving. And if you can, please find a way to help some people who are a little less fortunate than you are.
A COUPLE OF PLACES TO GIVE FOR THANKSGIVING DONATIONS:
Chester County Food Bank: http://chestercountyfoodbank.org/
Mercer Street Friends Food Bank: http://www.mercerstreetfriends.org/
Food Bank of Delaware: http://www.fbd.org/