Returning from the Paulist pastors' meeting in Washington, DC, last Thursday evening, I was so pleased to see Knoxville's airport decorated for Christmas. Then, on the way home, we stopped at the supermarket, where it was all Christmas Trees and poinsettias. We'd been away less than four days, but a big seasonal transition point had apparently arrived in the interim! This being my favorite time of the year, I always look forward to its arrival.
There was a time when the Christmas season began with Thanksgiving Day. Growing up in my family, we waited excitedly for Santa Claus to arrive at the end of New York’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Now, in many places, the season seems to begin right after Halloween. Thanksgiving itself comes as a brief but welcome pause in the increasingly hectic pace of the season. But, as I fly west to celebrate the holiday with my family, I am all the more conscious of Thanksgiving's importance for me personally and for our conflicted country as a whole.
Thanksgiving and harvest festivals are, of course, quite common across the world. But the American Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, our foundational feast, our ritual reenactment of our origin as a people. Thanksgiving is a civic celebration of who we are - by remembering who we have been - and so is also a symbol of who we hope to be.
Few of us, of course, are descended for those original New England Pilgrims, whose history is at the hear of the American Thanksgiving holiday's history. Most of us are either immigrants ourselves or descendants of more recent immigrants. I, for one, come from the great wave of immigration from Sicily and southern Italy’s mezzogiorno, that inundated the Port of New York some three centuries after the Pilgrims had made their mark. Even now, almost four centuries after the Pilgrims, immigrants keep coming to this country. Thanksgiving is an especially appropriate occasion to acknowledge and celebrate our immigrant heritage and our continued openness as a nation to new immigrants, as each immigrant group continues to add something significant and distinctive and vital to our country’s cultural mix. Yet at Thanksgiving we must also recal those hardy New Englanders who early on first expressed the spirit of the new nation, which is what we celebrate at Thanksgiving - in a very appropriately Christian way, by giving thanks through the sharing of a meal.
For most of us, it is hard even to imagine what it must have been like to have embarked upon so hazardous an enterprise as did the Pilgrims (although the more recent memories of immigrant relatives and the ever-present witness of immigrants in our own country and in our local communities today should help us to appreciate the awesomeness of the experience). Certainly, something so vast and mysterious as the New World was bound to arouse all sorts of complex emotions among the settlers – both their brightest hopes and their darkest fears. But, interpreted in the light of faith, the unknown of the ocean crossing became for them something known as they recalled God’s Chosen People’s crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. And, good Calvinists that they were, those early immigrants to New England recognized their religious and political community as an important part of what goes into the development of a good human life.
The passage of time may make us feel more secure and contented than befits a truly pilgrim people. In the great ongoing struggle for the heart and soul of America, the Pilgrims’ legacy recalls an important dimension of our life together. Our New England forefathers knew only too well what we as a nation forget only at our peril, that what is worth hoping for in our individual and collective lives requires a real community. They remind us – as Thanksgiving Day was originally intended to remind us – that we are all ultimately dependent upon one another and upon God.