Keeping a Good Thanksgiving: Part 1

Greetings to our lovely readers!

In these busy weeks – the first of the 2013 holiday season – we are pleased to offer you a series of posts on the subject of Thanksgiving. Delivered by Dr. Buchanan on October 29, 2013 in a speech titled, “Keeping a Good Thanksgiving: Hooray for the Pumpkin Pie,” we will share them with you here on Hold to the Good in eight installments over the next fourteen days.

In signature Dr. Buchanan style there is something for everyone: history, theology, prayer, insight for good living – even a secret family recipe will be divulged! We hope you enjoy Dr. Buchanan’s Thanksgiving Series and will look forward to reading your comments and perhaps even hearing a bit about your own family’s thanksgiving traditions.

Here’s to keeping a good thanksgiving and, of course, hooray for the pumpkin pie!

            Peace and blessings.

Part 1: Keeping a Good Thanksgiving

Distinguished University of Chicago scholar emeritus Martin Marty recently noted the substantial change in the way Thanksgiving is observed in the United States.

His observation was precipitated by Macy’s recent announcement that stores would be open for business on Thanksgiving Day this year. In recent years, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving has become an important economic driver, with television coverage of long lines queuing up to get first shot at Black Friday bargains. So, now Thanksgiving Day as well.

Marty dryly observes that instead of a religious-secular highlight, an American Thanksgiving is becoming a “commercial event” – shopping is becoming the “main idiosyncratic form of communal expression.”

I don’t like to be grouchy, but spending Thanksgiving Day shopping doesn’t sound like a great idea to me…nor does the relentless marketization of all life.

And yet, Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday for many people. I am one of them. In spite of Black Friday, which doesn’t actually have anything to do with Thanksgiving, it is the least commercialized – can’t hold a candle to Halloween and Mother’s Day, not to mention Christmas/Hanukkah. But there are a few Thanksgiving cards, on the bottom shelf at Borders, no gifts to purchase, wrap and post, not many Thanksgiving cocktail parties and receptions, no seasonal music outside the churches (and, by the way, the music of gratitude is some of the best music all religions sing). But all in all, an authentic American Thanksgiving is wonderful in its simplicity: a time to gather with family and dearest friends, to enjoy one another, to enjoy an amazing meal – with its own family traditions and somewhere along the way to count our blessings and to say thanks.

In many ways, it is the quintessential, most American of holidays. Harvest festivals are as old as the human race: the mysterious fertility of the earth; the rituals of planting, tending, nurturing and harvesting. And at the end, the assurance that life is now possible for another year. From the beginning of time, people have paused in their daily routines at harvest time – to celebrate their good fortune, usually by eating and drinking – and expressing gratitude – to the gods, to Mother Earth, who in her own rhythms is responsible for fertility, regeneration, reproduction, in agriculture, animal husbandry and human reproduction, all of which ancient people understood were both absolutely essential to their ongoing survival, but also not altogether under their control. There was surprise, mystery and delight in the whole process.

And so, nearly every civilization developed some kind of harvest or fertility celebration – mostly involving eating and drinking and some kind of communal gratitude expression. British settlers brought the English tradition of Harvest Festival with them. President George Washington implored the new nation to be grateful for independence, security, freedom and plenty. It was Abraham Lincoln who, during the Civil War, actually declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.

The late William Sloane Coffin said that he was really “into Thanksgiving because it was the only victimless national holiday if you can overlook several million turkeys.” [Collected Sermons, p.39]

The subtitle for this presentation: “Keeping a Good Thanksgiving” is “Hooray for the Pumpkin Pie”. That is the line from the only secular Thanksgiving song I know – “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go”, a nineteenth century poem by Lydia Maria Child, set to music.

Over the river and through the woods,
To Grandmother’s house we go.
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
Through white and drifted snow.
Over the river and through the woods,
O how the wind does blow,
It stings the toes and bites the nose,
As over the ground we go.

There are several more stanzas and the poem comes to a grand conclusion:

Hooray for the fun
Is the pudding done?
Hooray for the pumpkin pie!

Once a week preachers, of all kinds, try to dig into a text and extract a few ideas (preferably three). Happily there are three pretty good ideas in Lydia Maria Child’s poem.

The first is that Thanksgiving requires at least a few more people than yourself. You can do it alone, but gratitude comes a little easier when you have other people with you. Eric Felton, a Wall Street Journal writer, had a little fun, suggesting that if Thanksgiving isn’t what it used to be it’s Lydia Maria Child’s fault – “Over the river and through the woods – It’s Grandmother: Who wants to go to Grandmother’s house and spend time with old people? And “over the river and through the woods…” – the modern equivalent is standing in a huge line at O’Hare, stripping off your jacket, shoes and belt for the Transportation Safety Administration pat down (thanks be to God for those Full Body Scanners – with two hip replacements I have set off alarms and been patted down and groped more times than I can remember…I digress) the modern equivalent of Over the River and Through the Woods is that dreadful airport experience or sitting in your car in gridlock on the interstate – all for a chance to spend a full day making small talk with your in-laws.

Well, yes; but it was, for me, the occasion when my grandparents came to our house and mother got out the china and silver and we sat at the dining room table and there were candles even and the turkey…deep in the aroma memory department of my brain, on the top shelf, in fact, is the smell wafting up the stairs to my bedroom while I was still sleeping – of that turkey she had put in the oven before dawn. It makes my mouth water still.

Dad always put a tie on and began serving drinks as soon as the arrival of Grandma and Alec (he didn’t want to be a grandparent and insisted that we call him by his first name), Uncle Short, Aunt Helen and Uncle Charles. It was a big deal.

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