I have the great honor to be a teaching assistant in my seminary’s Speech/Communication Department. Yes, we ask grad students to take a public speaking course. In fact, a year-long course is required of all first-year students. One of the things we do to help people improve is tape them on prepared material that then we watch and give feedback (both affirmation and constructive criticism). I am in a series of individual conferences to help students prepare for our final taping of the semester where they will read Psalms (ancient songs from Israel’s history as recorded in the Bible) and a children’s letter to God in response to one of those Psalms.
Today I was in conference with “Maria,” a second-career student whose first language is Spanish. She chose to read Psalm 103. It’s the one that starts…
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all God’s benefits
It’s a good Psalm. Check out the whole thing. So we went over the Psalm talking about it in terms of phrasing, emphasis, etc. then she asked me, “Is this really a song about thanksgiving?” I asked her what she meant by that. She pointed out that in her Bible the heading for the Psalm is “A Psalm of Thanksgiving.” I thought she meant Thanksgiving the American holiday that’s this Thursday!
When we talk about the holiday we say “Th’nksgivn’.” When we talk about the act of gratitude it’s usually “Thanks. Giving.” or better still “giving thanks.” (The tone is difficult to show via blog, but you get the idea.) So I read through the Psalm. It actually sounds more like a call to remember to give thanks. Although I’m not entirely sure those are two different things.
Are we tired of hearing about giving thanks during Thanksgiving? It feels like the act is summed up by the name… but then it seems like we focus on fancy food (and lots of it) and Black Friday. We tell people “Happy Thanksgiving,” but it’s more about stuffing and pie and cheap electronics. When Maria left the conference she said, “Have a good Thanksgiving or whatever you are doing with your family.”
When I’ve told people I’m not “going home” for Thanksgiving they have been apologizing as if the question “Are you going home for Thanksgiving?” is only appropriate for people who are traveling and/or spending Thanksgiving with their families. So I told Maria, “Thanks, you too” because saying “I’m not going home” then requires an explanation. Can’t we give thanks if we’re not around our families? Or maybe, because we’re not around our families? (Just kidding, Mom.) We spent other special times with people other than our biological families. I tend to call these people “friends.” I am planning on spending Thanksgiving with friends and making pumpkin pie for the first time. That sounds like a good day to me. Perhaps it’s the being single thing. Am I expected to always travel to be with family on holidays because I’m not in a significant romantic relationship? When two people who are married, cohabiting, long-term dating, or even short-term dating spend a holiday together people don’t apologize when the ask questions about their plans.
I might be getting off topic here. What was the question again? “Is this really a song about thanksgiving?” Maybe that should be “Is this really a blog about Thanksgiving?” Or “Is Thanksgiving really a holiday about thanks giving?”
Ok, there’s the real question: Is Thanksgiving really a holiday about thanks giving?
Between Pilgrims and Native Indians, turkey and pie, traveling and days off, is Thanksgiving really a holiday about thanks giving? My friend Becci who is an expatriate living in Greece told me a few years ago that Christmas is very different when you don’t have Thanksgiving to distract you. The pre-Christmas shopping season is longer (and not nearly as crazy)… but they also don’t have pumpkin pie. When we had Thanksgiving dinner in Greece it was weird. No parade. It was like we were the only people in the country coming together to celebrate that day. Without the cultural foundations Thanksgiving felt a bit empty. Now, the Greeks did everything they could to create Thanksgiving for us with the help of some supplies that had been mailed over from the states. The food was excellent. But I don’t remember feeling extremely thankful that day. It felt like a normal day with a turkey dinner. Nothing in the stores to remind you constantly the events coming up or expected to come up in the next few weeks. No commercials about preparing for the holidays. You would think we could have experience a “pure” Thanksgiving without being tainted by materialism and commercialism, but we were about twelve people celebrating in a city filled with people going about their normal activities.
I like the idea of a day dedicated to giving thanks for what we have and asking that we be empowered through our blessings to share with those who do not have and work against systems that keep the rich richer and the poor poorer. But honestly the power of Thanksgiving, and the power of the Psalms, is a community’s experience. We may judge our Thanksgivings based on expectations set up by Norman Rockwell or our families, but it’s not really about us as individuals. We can as individuals make our Thanksgiving dinner about service or thanks or food, but it’s the entire community agreeing this day is special that lends Thanksgiving that kind of power.
Oh, and according to my friends Jon R., Grant V., and Robin Scherbatsky, “real Thanksgiving” happened over a month ago.