Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thoughts on Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday of the year. Even moreso than Christmas. It is our uniquely American holiday where the family gathers, where we remember our roots, we share a meal, and we give thanks.

But look how quickly such simple and profound holidays get perverted. Today, we hardly know what “giving thanks” even means, and so the act of giving thanks is lost on most of us. Newscasters talk about “turkey day,” as if all there was to the day was eating turkey. Interestingly, most folks would not know whether or not they were eating turkey, or eating crow, and most of the time we’re doing the latter, figuratively speaking. Then, when we have barely taken the time to consider the notion of “giving thanks,” we get up early on the following “black Friday” to rush around with the mobs “looking for a good deal” to help us celebrate the consumer-driven commercial craze into which we’ve morphed “Christmas.”

Wow! How did we get here? What can we do about it? Let’s take a moment to look at the roots of Thanksgiving.

In the history of North America, we are told that the first historic Thanksgiving Day was in October of 1621. After a successful harvest that year at the Plymouth colony, there was about a week of celebrations. The local Indians and the colonists joined together, with the Indians generally showing the colonists (mostly city folks) how to hunt for the meal which consisted of fowl, deer, duck, goose, and fish. Corn bread, wild greens, plums, leeks, and many other vegetables (wild and domestic) were shared in this celebration. Interestingly, there is no evidence that wild turkey or wild cranberries (totally unpalatable without cooking and adding sweeteners) were part of the menu.

In fact, some historians question whether or not there were any religious overtones at all on this “first Thanksgiving,” citing such evidence as the archery and firearms games, and the running and jumping competitions, which they say would never be done at religious ceremonies by the Puritans.

Some say that the “first Thanksgiving” was just another Harvest Festival.
What then is it, if anything, that sets the American (and the Canadian) Thanksgiving celebration apart from any of the other myriad of Harvest Festivals?

The pilgrims experienced a severe drought in the summer of 1623. That season, they were totally dependent on wild game and wild plants, and owed their survival largely to the English-speaking Indian Squanto. In their lack, they refocussed upon their real purpose for coming to this new land. They sought to establish a time to give thanks for their spiritual bounty, in spite of the fact that they had no material bounty that year.

A harvest festival implies revelry and fun because of the material bounty; by contrast, a day of thanks is intended to remind us that there is more to life than the physical bodies and material food. The day of thanks is set apart so that we do not lose sight of our spiritual heritage, which is the real bounty.

Both Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are the times that Americans have traditionally set aside to reflect upon the concepts of “freedom” and “giving thanks.” The purpose of such special times of reflection is to see how well we have done during the past year, and determine what corrections we should make if we find that we are veering away from our chosen path. It should not be a time of merely “having fun.”

Most of us have made the choice to abandon using the Thanksgiving day as a time of reflection, either personally or publicly. And thus, the Day of Thanksgiving continues to degenerate and we veer further and further from fulfilling any special destiny that may have been fulfilled by the people of the United States.

As long as we confuse “giving thanks” with “eating a lot of really good food,” the practical effect is that Thanksgiving today is little more than a Harvest Festival. “Giving Thanks” is a particular attitude which accompanies specific actions. Perhaps sharing our bounty with the needy would be a better Thanksgiving activity than eating large volumes of food. More to the point, perhaps we should use Thanksgiving to give thanks where it is due -- to the American Indians who have become the “forgotten minorities.” Rather than “eat a lot,” perhaps we could send blankets, food, or money to any of the American Indian families or nations who today live in Third World conditions.

To me, the essence of Thanksgiving was the coming together of two cultures, trying to work together under trying circumstances. Yes, they shared a meal. Food sustains us. But it was not about food, per se. They practiced with their bows and guns, a sign of mutual preparedness. And in their own ways, they “prayed to God,” in the ways that were appropriate to each culture.

The notion of a Supreme Intelligence was common to the Indians and the new settlers to the Northeastern coasts. That this was so is well-documented in William Stolzman awesome book, “The Pipe and Christ: A Christian-Sioux Dialogue.” He shows many of the similarities, and differences, between the native religion and the mostly Christian Europeans who began to occupy what became the United States and Canada. Similarly, these distinctions are well laid out in Vine Deloria’s classic work, “God is Red,” which Wilma Mankiller once declared to the be closest thing to an Indian Bible that’s ever been written.

By the way, much has been said about the term “Indian,” supposedly because Columbus thought he was in India when in fact he never got beyond the Carribean islands. But not everyone agrees with that linguistic conclusion. For one, India was not called “Indian” in the late 1400s. Some have suggested that it was the phrase “en Dios” (with God) that Columbus used to describe how the native, who lived simply and were perceived to be “close to God,” was the actual root of the term “Indians.” It is still debated.

Anyway, once we get to Halloween every year, we’re in the end-of-year Holiday mode that include Thanksgiving, and then Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Years. These could be special events that lead to our spiritual enlightenment, and evolution, but we have to fight to make them so.

There is much to be thankful for on Thanksgiving, whether we give thanks to friends and family, thanks to God, and thanks for our relative bounty.

But we really should not forget our national roots. Don’t just give lip-service thanks to the Native Americans whose land was taken. Rather, find those organizations that are actually providing real assistance to Native Americans in poverty, such as many of those living in the third world conditions so prevalent on today’s reservations.

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