The Meanings of Thanksgiving

November 27, 2019
  • Tim Atkins, Director of Lifespan Religious Education

This morning I decided to set my alarm a few hours early, put my bravest face on, and go to the grocery store the morning before Thanksgiving. Now, this was all the result of poor planning on my part – I knew I needed groceries but for some reason kept waiting until quite possibly the busiest day of the year for grocery stores. I thought about using Instacart (and giving a great tip since they were doing my dirty work for me) but I knew I needed to look at the baking section to see what I really needed. So I made a plan to wake up early and go to the grocery store before it got TOO crowded.

I was ultimately successful and I’m beginning writing this to you as my first batch of dinner rolls are rising. Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday – we take pause to remember the origin story of Thanksgiving that’s honestly steeped in our culture of white supremacy, and we use the occasion to rightly honor the lives of so many indigenous communities that many of our ancestors destroyed.

Like so many holidays, the reasons why we celebrate them either aren’t relevant to me on a theological level, or the origin of the holiday is steeped in a history I wish had never happened. But yet I still celebrate them (in my own way, of course) because of family traditions or wider cultural traditions. A lot of religions have their own harvest festivals this time of year, and there’s something not just about the crops coming in but the changing into winter that makes us think of home. And Thanksgiving has become, in a way, a civic religious version of a harvest festival for those who don’t have one from their own religious tradition.

Just like I focus on celebrating the secular Christmas and general spirit of the holiday, so too do I focus on the secular Thanksgiving and the general spirit of the holiday. And for me, this time around Thanksgiving and harvest is about food, it’s about the family/home, and it’s about the spirit of gratitude and community. I want to share with you a few vignettes from my day to show this Spirit of Thanksgiving – feel free to settle in, grab a cup of coffee while you read, or read sections throughout the day as you prepare for your Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is about the food.

It’s what we often think of first when we think about Thanksgiving. The turkey. The stuffing. The pies. The special side that was handed down your family from generations. The special side that was handed down someone else’s family for generations that you found on a cooking blog. Today ovens across the nation are on, baking up pies and other treats in advance. I’ve got some bread going, making my apartment smell delicious as I type (and a meal in the crockpot for dinner tonight since there’s no way I want to cook after a day of baking.)

But the food is really more than JUST food, right? It’s the care and attention we place into creating something to give others nourishment. It’s the mindfulness of paying attention to where your food came from, giving gratitude to the farmers and grocery store workers who were paid far too less for their essential services.

And food is about the memories. The memories of Thanksgiving past with family members who have since passed on. That food is a way we bring their memories back to life and bring our ancestors to our Thanksgiving Table. There’s something about food and the senses that eating engages that really forms strong memories and can teleport us back to a happier time in our lives.

Thanksgiving is about the family/home.

Many of our Thanksgiving traditions come from our families. For example, I believe most folks engaging in the great “cranberry sauce from a can that you slice” vs “cranberries in a sauce” debate are largely taking sides based on early family inclinations. How you cook the turkey is probably similar to how someone else in your family does. The days before Thanksgiving are some of the busiest travel days in the country – why? Because a lot of people are heading somewhere they consider as “home.”

And if we don’t have a place we really consider as home, or we can’t travel there because we aren’t truly welcome in our families, we also can create home for ourselves. Earlier this morning, I received a phone call from someone I used to serve on the UUA Board with. He was a high school youth observer during one of my first years on the UUA Board, and he wanted to reach out, catch up, and to talk about his spiritual life as he prepares to graduate from undergrad. And that phone call gave me that same feeling of family and home. Even though he is certainly no member of my blood family and lives no where near here, he’s part of my wider chosen family – and those mentor relationships and chosen relationships we have can be just as strong as if not stronger than family ties. Just that memory, that connection, was enough to make me feel like I was “back home,” even though I hadn’t left my apartment.

Thanksgiving is about the spirit of gratitude and community.

Thanksgiving, when we break it down, is about thankful giving and giving thanks. It’s about the spirit of gratitude and the spirit of community. And being thankful for your community. And, well, you get the idea. Many of us have some sort of “sharing what we’re thankful for” as part of our Thanksgiving dinner traditions for a reason.

I bet people invite more friends, acquaintances, strangers, coworkers, and extended relatives into their homes on Thanksgiving more than any other day of the year. When you hear of someone who has nowhere to go for Thanksgiving, your first inclination is always to contemplate inviting them to wherever you’re dining. It’s why we have Friendsgiving at Cedar Lane. Some people don’t ever get this kind of community outside of Thanksgiving, and it’s why Thanksgiving can end up being the most meaningful holiday of the year for so many.

Earlier today I was at the grocery store and I ended up passing the same elder on pretty much every aisle. I’m sure that’s happened to you – where you and another shopper seem to be hitting each aisle at the same pacing, but moving in opposite directions, through at least half the store. Each time we passed we gave each other a polite smile as we navigated our carts around each other (and the inevitable mid-aisle displays.)

Unbelievably, we paid around the same time, and we had parked next to each other. We unloaded the groceries as we wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving and talked about why we both went so early to the store – to avoid the crowds. And more general small talk as I helped load a particularly heavy bag into her trunk (I assumed it was the turkey but thought it would be rude to look.) And we both drove away smiling. It was just a simple moment of connection, but it was in that spirit of gratitude and community that we were each feeling, just for a brief moment, before we set off on a day of holiday baking. These moments of connection can last for hours or last for seconds, but when they happen, you truly feel a part of something bigger than yourself.

So Happy Thanksgiving, from my family to yours, from my chosen family to yours. May your Thanksgiving season be filled with food, family, and fellowship.

…And if you aren’t helping with the cooking, remember it’s your duty to help with the cleaning :D