Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
We have now begun our third week of ‘lockdown’ though those of us in Kirklees who have been under restrictions of one sort or another almost continually since late March may find the idea of counting the weeks of the present increase in restrictions a little tiresome. Most people I speak to these days are weary, after nearly eight months of restrictions on our movement, our ability to associate with each other, added to the shortening of days and the inclement weather, we are all tired or worse. Which means bringing up something like American Thanksgiving may seem a bit frivolous…I hope by the end of the letter you won’t think so.
We Americans are particularly fond of this holiday. It isn’t, as some people may think, more important than Christmas, but it is certainly the next most important holiday. In many ways Thanksgiving is actually the preparation for Christmas. Many people (even some Americans) think that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, as opposed to Christmas which, even now continues to be seen as a religious holiday. I would challenge this strongly. In fact, the more I reflect on Thanksgiving and its relationship to Christmas in American culture the more convinced I am that both are deeply religious, or as some people may prefer saying, a deeply spiritual.
All Americans are taught in school that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 attended by 90 Indigenous Americans and 53 English at the Plymouth Plantation. Though I have since learned that Thanksgiving or Harvest festivals were commonly celebrated in the settlements of the Virginia Colonies as early as 1607. Because of course Thanksgiving celebrations are simply another word for Harvest celebrations. And the fundamental purpose of a Thanksgiving or Harvest festival is to thank God for nurturing and caring for us throughout the year and reminding us that we in turn must care for each other. Thanksgiving, or Harvest festivals continued to be celebrated in America as mainly in the churches as a community religious festival until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln, during the height of the horrors of the American Civil war, proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens", to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, as it has ever since.
The important thing to remember here is that Thanksgiving in Abraham Lincoln, and the American people’s minds was always connected to God. For those who have never been in America during a modern Thanksgiving, you may think that this holiday is just about having a good time and has lost all spiritual meaning. But I would challenge you on that. One of the basic values of Thanksgiving is very simple: There is always room for one more at the table. Inspired by our ancestors who joined in community to share the harvest, at Thanksgiving Americans make a special effort to invite those who may not be able to share the meal with family to come to their house. It is also a time when charities and churches open their doors to welcome the homeless and others in difficult situations to share this traditional meal. In theory at least and often in practice, everyone has a place at the table. This is a deeply spiritual understanding of our relationships, and is rooted in Christ’s commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves.
Yes, there is turkey, and pumpkin pie, and sweet potatoes cooked in a most shocking and imaginative number of ways. My favorite memories of this holiday are waking up in the morning to the smell of pies, baked the night before and my mom already preparing the turkey for the oven. The Thanksgiving table is one of friendship, of love, of community with all the power that Christ understood is present in the sharing of a meal. We open our hearts to each other, and that is as good a preparation as one can have for Advent season, and the opening of our hearts to Christ.
I have always continued the Thanksgiving tradition during the past 19 years I have lived here in England. I have invited friends over and we have crowded around the table and it has been joyous. This year, like so many Americans, I cannot fill every chair I own, and every space around my table with friends and family. This year, like 1621 and 1863 has been a year of sorrows, of pandemic, of grief, and of loss. But God always fills us when we are empty, and this year I will try for the first time to ‘share’ Thanksgiving with my family through a Zoom call. I will have a Thanksgiving morning coffee with my American colleague and his family here in England, via Zoom. I have already delivered some of my pumpkin harvest…13 New England Sweet pumpkins! to friends. And I will pray that God will fill our table with love and joy even though Thanksgiving will be different this year.
For as you know, our Lord is with us in all things, and if we open our hearts the Holy Spirit fills us with such good things even in the most challenging of times. And so, I invite all of you to be with me on Thanksgiving this Thursday, through your prayers and your love. And my prayers and love will be with all of you. And in this way we will prepare ourselves for that most sacred celebration, the coming of our God into this world in human flesh in order to draw all of us to God’s self and God’s Good Kingdom which even in the gloom of the present time shines forth in the darkness.
Revd Professor Jessica Malay
Almondbury with Farnley Tyas