Last year as November drew to a close I found myself desperately searching online for local grocery stores that sold turkeys. I was living in London, where a Thanksgiving holiday was as strange and exotic as American football, and the thought of having a whole turkey outside of the Christmas holidays was an interesting novelty to the non-Americans around me. As members of my Jesuit community asked me more about this particularly American holiday, I was forced to reflect on my experience of Thanksgiving and the many different traditions I had experienced. These are a few of the things I found to be at the heart of my Thanksgiving celebrations:
Obviously food is at the heart of most Thanksgiving celebrations. Everyone has their idea of a classic Thanksgiving meal with a nice golden turkey, cranberry sauce, and lots of pie. Various side dishes have come and gone in my years of celebrating Thanksgiving, especially as I moved around the country and lived with people from diverse family backgrounds. Being from the Midwest my favorite has always been twiced baked potatoes, which mixes my favorite carb with lots of rich flavors like cream and cheese. My European community was particularly confused when I brought out sweet potato casserole which was little more than sugary starch topped with marshmallows. (We all know the marshmallows are the real reason to eat this side dish.)
In my first year as a Jesuit I made the 30 day silent retreat during the entire month of November. I remember being a bit concerned since it was my first holiday away from my family at home and I wasn’t even going to be allowed to talk to anyone the whole day. On the morning of Thanksgiving, my spiritual director told me that I would be allowed to have a break from the silence in the afternoon. When I went to the Rec Room, I found out that only two of us were allowed to take a break from the usual silence. We went for a walk and tried to avoid the others who were still in silence. Spending this afternoon with another person really boosted my day and helped me ease into the new family I had entered. As we walked into the dining room at the end of the day, we laughed about getting stopped by the local farmer as we crossed the electric fence with the machete we had brought to cut back the brush of the Louisiana swamp that surrounded us. After a very happy afternoon, we settled in to (silently) enjoy our turkey. I am lucky that I have always had friends and family to surround me during the Thanksgiving season.
While I am not the most athletic person I always look forward to getting together with my friends and family for a “friendly” game of football at the annual Turkey Bowl. Running around and throwing a football brings out the joy of fall. The cool air fights back the sweat and calms tempers that tend to rise during any large family gathering. Every game seems to include someone so coordinated they can’t miss a pass. Luckily, there are also always people with a skill level that helps us all remember that the real professionals are the ones we’ll watch on TV later in the day. (But then again, sometimes the pros make us wonder why we aren’t out there instead of them – anyone could catch that pass!)
For years it was my job to lead my family in prayer before the meal. As a young kid I would pick out a passage of thanksgiving from scripture, but as I got older I felt more comfortable writing my own prayers. Some families have the tradition of going around the table and naming one thing they each are grateful for from the past year. One of the nice things about social networks like Facebook is that every year on Thanksgiving I can rely on scrolling down my news feed and reading the outpouring of blessings received by all of my friends. Presenting these blessings back to God in an attitude of gratitude and humility is one of the most important things we can do.
Thanksgiving gives us the chance to offer our gratitude for the many material and spiritual blessings we receive, and to share them with our loved ones. What are some of the things you’re most grateful for this year?
Cover image “The Thanksgiving Table,” courtesy Flickr CC user Sharon, found here.