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Reclaiming Thanksgiving: A UU Holiday

Posted by Carey McDonald // November 24th 2011 // soundings, Stories and Voices // no comments

I love Thanksgiving.

I love sweet potatoes, and cranberry relish, and turkey and ham and sparkling cider. It is my favorite holiday.

I am a Thanksgiving evangelist.

 

Now, for many folks Thanksgiving seems unremarkable, and mainly consists of stuffing yourself and watching the Lions’ game. I like to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday boiled down to the essentials: a shared meal and the presence of loving family and friends, a celebration of what is important. It doesn’t have to be fancy And for countless others, holidays (including Thanksgiving) are fraught with family stress. Indeed, my family has gone through changes in the last few years that have shifted the way we celebrate holidays, and not always for the better. But I’ve also spent Thanksgiving with no blood relations in sight, in the company of warm friends. Time after time I’ve witnessed people taking near strangers into their home for Thanksgiving dinner, no questions asked. No one should have to be alone if they don’t want to be for Thanksgiving, even if that means volunteering at a soup kitchen, no less a celebration of a shared meal.

Most of all, for me Thanksgiving is a spiritual holiday, and one that I think represents the best of Unitarian Universalism. Like Unitarian Universalism, Thanksgiving is distinctly American and rooted in New England. It embodies the contradictions of our pride and our failures, of our desire for self-reliance and the reality of our interdependence.  Perhaps most importantly, it is the practice of making time for shared experience and togetherness despite all the other distractions in our lives. An unglamorous, simple, nourishing annual Sabbath. And yet, in some ways Thanksgiving feels like an anachronism, out of place.

I can’t name another spot in our culture that is reserved for pausing to be grateful of what is here, rather than obsessing, criticizing, overscheduling, and feeling inadequate about not living up to the ideals which advertising, our society’s lowest-common-denominator of shared experience, has led us to desire. Contemporary America, which has managed to commercialize every meaningful event or celebration in our lives, is stumped by Thanksgiving. There’s just not that much to sell, besides turkey. The best the advertising mavens have been able to come up with is Black Friday, which as everyone knows isn’t about Thanksgiving at all.

The Rev. Galen Guengerich suggests that the discipline of gratitude is where the value of gratitude resides. As a child I remember, as I’m sure many of you do, sitting at the dinner table on Thanksgiving and one by one saying what we are thankful for. It seemed hard, since we only did it once a year. That difficulty was instructive, how could we be so unaware of the blessings in our lives? I am grateful that our faith exists, and that I can work each week towards living out our UU principles, our big, powerful, hard ideas like love and dignity. What do count on your list of things to be thankful for?

Guengerich argues that gratitude should be the defining feature of Unitarian Universalism because it reminds us of our interconnection with each other and the world. His take is just one of the many I’ve heard of what binds us together as UUs, but short of any theological point, I would say that the mere intentionality of setting aside time to stop and think about what is important in the presence of people who are important to us is a bold and rebellious act. It’s one we aim for every Sunday as UUs, and it requires practice to be sure.

So remember that you heard it here first, I think we should reclaim Thanksgiving as a UU holiday. Thanksgiving stands tall as a shameless plea for community, health and kindness in the midst of an America characterized by corrupt and ineffective institutions, blind individualism, abuses of power and economic malaise. But it survives, Thanksgiving comes again every year. Stubbornly unwilling to be drowned out by the negativity that surrounds it.

I’d like to close by sharing a passage from one of my family’s historical songs that we sing each year, which I think sums up the best of the Thanksgiving holiday:

Then praise for the past and the present we sing,
And trustful await what the future may bring:
Let doubt and repining be banished away,
And the whole of our lives be a Thanksgiving-day.
And the whole of our lives be a Thanksgiving-day.

Amen.

About the Author

Carey is the Director of Outreach for the UUA.
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