This is a holiday season unlike anything any of us have ever seen. I mean, who’s ever heard of Zoom Thanksgiving? We’ve had ThanksGrieving and FriendsGiving. We’re familiar with traveling and staying home, with frying turkeys and going vegan. But, Zoom Thanksgiving is a whole new thing.
2020 has been a year of Whole New Things. All these new things – social distancing and election subversion and large scale homeschooling and mask wearing – all these new things are an opportunity for us to flex our spiritual muscles and practice gratitude.
Thanksgiving was first created for nothing more than gratitude. Formally recognized on September 28, 1789, just before the first recess of the first Federal Congress, a resolution was passed asking that on Thursday, November 26, President George Washington proclaim a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin”. It wasn’t an annual federal holiday. It was a pause for a beleaguered nation. They’d been oppressed, at war, in transition and the people of that Congress thought a day off to breathe, to celebrate the harvest with family, and to count their blessings would be good for everyone.
I’d like to suggest it will be good for us too.
Subsequent presidents issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and even months of the celebrations varied. It wasn't until President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Proclamation that Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November and in the same spirit as the first. In 1863, we were at war with each other, and a public day of Thanksgiving was calculated, an attempt to shift the energy in the nation, and Lincoln was building it into the national culture. We require one day to stop our infighting and simply be grateful for what we have.
In 1939, however, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month. This created a concern for retailers who were beginning to enjoy an economic recovery and didn’t want the Christmas shopping season to be shortened by a late Thanksgiving. President Roosevelt issued a proclamation, moving the holiday to the 2nd to last Thursday. Here’s the part that feels too familiar. 32 states followed his lead and 16 states refused the change, claiming he had no right and the last Thursday is the real Thanksgiving. For the next two years, we had two Thanksgivings, a week apart from each other.
In 1941, Congress took over and after some wrangling, settled on the 4th Thursday as a federal holiday – not the LAST which could be the 5th Thursday, but not the 2nd to last which could be the 3rd Thursday. The 4th Thursday would be set aside for the purpose of public expressions of gratitude. So, even over our desire to be grateful, this nation has had trouble agreeing.
I’d like to note that none of this history involves Pilgrims or a Native American tribe. That story- the one where Europeans are welcomed, where they befriend the people who were here and share a meal in gratitude for the harvest they grew together after which these Indigenous People quietly step back from the forefront, poetically turning over the land to the next generation of inhabitants- that story is a myth created in the late 19th century as part of the white-washing of American history. It was first told by New Englanders who felt their own national influence slipping away. It gained popularity as immigrants were flooding our shores. The white Protestants wanted to assert their own cultural authority and discovered this particular myth of invitation and the founding of the nation to be a useful reminder about who was here first. In addition, the Indian Wars were coming to an end with many nations defeated and bloody. It was an opportune time to hold up an image of friendship and a bloodless transfer of power. It is my sincere hope that we can one day divorce this myth from the holiday altogether. It is an unholy union.
That’s not what this holiday is about or what it was intended to become. It’s about breath. It’s about acknowledgement. It’s about rejoicing in what is.
To bring us back to that place, we have our children. This service is usually multigenerational. Last year, the children put on a little skit using the stone soup story and lots of us cried from the sweetness of it all. But children don’t join us on Zoom. They’ve established their own perfectly wonderful little community earlier on Sundays. Nonetheless, I asked if they would be willing to tell us today what they are grateful for. Here’s what they said…
It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much you have or are missing this year. There is almost always something to be grateful for. Gratitude is a counter-cultural act. In a world that tells us constantly that we need to purchase one more thing so we can be happy, gratitude tells us we can simply shift our gaze and discover joy right where we stand. Gratitude is how we stay grounded in Truth. So, for the rest of this sermon, I would like you all to write things in the chat for which you are grateful this holiday season.
I know this Thanksgiving isn’t going to be everything we all want it to be or everything this holiday has been in the past. It might feel sad or empty or even meaningless. We create meaning with and for each other and when there are so few people to bump up against in our lives, meaninglessness can be a byproduct.
I’d like to suggest that this year, instead of being less, will simply be different. Whatever you usually do, this year can be something else. I usually cook for days and have a house filled with people. This year, I think my son, husband and I will bake mini pies and spend the morning dropping them on Zac’s friend’s doorsteps- the doorsteps of 10 year olds who might also be experiencing some social dysphoria. Then we’ll visit my mom for a distanced, outdoor visit, potentially in the rain, and we’ll head home for a traditional meal, albeit smaller. Later, we’ll Zoom with my sister and her family, and we’ll end the day talking with Graham’s extra large family in what’s sure to be too much talking and enough laughter to fill all our separate rooms. It isn’t what it usually is, but whatever it is, it is good.
In 1847, Sarah Hale was petitioning for a federal day of Thanksgiving. There were random days set aside, with each state being different from the others. To convince the president that uniformity is a good idea, she wrote: “Would that the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day. Then, though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing, that all were enjoying the blessings of the days. .”
That’s us this year. We are too far separated to meet around one festive board, but we have the gratification of knowing that everyone we love has also put this day aside. We are under the same stars, enjoying a similar meal, and thinking of each other. There’s comfort in that, in knowing that we are together even as we are apart.
I’m coming to think that this year is our time to really learn gratitude as a spiritual practice. It’s time for us not only to look at the things that are great, but to be grateful for All. The. Things. All of them. Everything. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians says: Rejoice in all things, pray without ceasing, give thanks in any circumstance.
This isn’t about telling people to just be happy. I assume you know me better than that. It’s about self-care. It’s about shifting the way we live in this very complicated and sometimes lonely or infuriating or frightening world.
What are the things you can rejoice in right now? A hot cup of tea? An internet connection? A good view? The sound of children playing in the apartment above you? The memory of a phone call with an old friend? Good slippers? Going to church without having to “go to church”?
Gratitude this year might have to be more intentional than in other years. We might have to work on it a little more. But, the fact that the entire nation will stop for a single day – on the same day – regardless of all the tension and anger and fear and resentment – every American will have a day for a “publick day of thanksgiving”. And for that, we can give thanks.