Americans are really good at sucking the true meaning out of holidays. We turn Memorial Day into an excuse to consume alcohol, Christmas into a months-long spending spree, and Thanksgiving into “Turkey Day.” There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the various festivities associated with special days on the calendar, but sometimes it’s good to ask, Charlie Brown style, what it’s all about. If you have lost sight of the true meaning of Thanksgiving — and even if you haven’t — here are five ways to regain and keep the proper focus.
Remember the Pilgrims
If you are a recent graduate of America’s public schools, you may never have been taught about the first Thanksgiving. The best account comes from William Bradford himself in his eyewitness history, “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Bradford was the long-serving governor of the Plymouth colony, and his book is the source of most of our treasured stories about the Pilgrims, Massasoit, Squanto, Myles Standish, the Mayflower Compact, and all the rest.
If you have never read it, I recommend a version such as this one that maintains Bradford’s original language while using updated spelling for easier reading. But if you don’t have time to get through Bradford’s full history, at least take a few moments on Thanksgiving Day to read a summary. If you have children (and even if you don’t), this is a lovely picture book version. Better yet, assign the kids to research and narrate or act out the story themselves, Brady Bunch style (they will really learn it this way). Whatever you do, don’t carve your Thanksgiving turkey without taking a few moments to reflect on why you are having one.
Find ways, in the run-up to Thanksgiving, to remind yourself to be thankful. One possibility is to embark on a conscious regimen of prayer, journaling, Bible reading, or acts of service during the month of November. Another is to spend time on Thanksgiving Day actually thinking about your blessings. My husband and I have long had the tradition, before Thanksgiving dinner, of going around the table and asking everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to name at least one thing for which they’re thankful. (Pro tip: Do this before you serve the meal, so the food doesn’t get cold!)
If you are having a large gathering with multiple tables, you might suggest that each table share their answers among themselves (appoint a leader to facilitate). Alternatively, as your guests arrive and enjoy the pre-meal conversation, have them write one of their blessings on a small, decorative piece of paper (perhaps the kids can prepare Thanksgiving-themed cutouts for this in advance). Then, during the meal, the host can pull the pieces of paper out of a basket and read them out loud.
Invite the Stranger
By “stranger,” I don’t mean a literal stranger but someone in your circle that you would not normally socialize with: a coworker, neighbor, acquaintance from church, or even the nice lady who checks you out every week at the grocery store. Ask yourself who, among those you regularly encounter but don’t know well, might not have a place to go on Thanksgiving. Identify that person and invite him or her to share in your meal, your family, and your joy. If it turns out you are the person with nowhere to go, find a shelter or community group that is preparing and serving a Thanksgiving meal and sign up to help. One way or another, be Neal at the end of the classic Thanksgiving movie, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Find Del and bring him home.
I grew up not praying before meals unless my Aunt Lou was in town. When Aunt Lou visited, we always prayed before meals, and I loved it. My husband and I resolved years ago to keep the family meal as a core part of our childrearing, and one reason is the opportunity mealtime affords for praying together. If you aren’t accustomed to saying grace at mealtime, there is no better time to start than Thanksgiving. The prayer doesn’t have to be elaborate, nor does it have to be extemporaneous to be meaningful. In fact, the best kinds of prayers are those in which we speak God’s own words back to Him. The Lord’s Prayer is the most obvious example of this since it is the prayer Christ gave us, but the Book of Psalms, as the Bible’s prayer book, is another. Some good choices for Thanksgiving are Psalms 100, 111, 145, and 150.
Go to Church
Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a church holiday. But it’s a national holiday that, as first instituted by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, calls upon American citizens to turn to the Lord of the universe in penitence, gratitude, and supplication. The best place to do that is ultimately not around the dinner table but gathered around God’s Word in corporate worship.
Not all churches offer Thanksgiving services, but many do. Check your local listing of services to find one. Then, if you don’t already have a church home, go back on Sunday — and the Sunday after that. Keep going back, and, before you know it, it will be Christmas — another holiday that is about a lot more than our popular culture cares to acknowledge.