Friday, November 19, 2010


Tomorrow, I fly to the West Coast to spend Thanksgiving week with my mother and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with her and my sister and her family. As Perry Como used to sing every year in anticipation of Thanksgiving, “there’s no place like home for the holidays.”

Thanksgiving harvest festivals are, in various forms, quite common across the world, but the American Thanksgiving is quite uniquely an American holiday, our foundational feast, our ritual reenactment of our origin as a people. In my six years stationed in Canada, I missed any number of things about the United States, and Thanksgiving Day was certainly high on that list. 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 the original Massachusetts Pilgrims. Most of us are more recent immigrants (or immigrants ourselves). I, for one, owe my American citizenship to that great wave of immigration from Sicily and southern Italy that inundated the Port of New York some three centuries after the Pilgrims had made their mark. Each immigrant group has added something significant and distinctive to our country’s cultural mix. Yet it was surely those hardy New Englanders who, early on, first gave our nation its soul, which is what we celebrate at Thanksgiving - in that most Christianly soulful of ways, by giving thanks through the sharing of a meal.

Most of us live lives of quiet caution. It is hard for us even to imagine what it must have been like to have embarked upon so hazardous an enterprise as did the Pilgrims (although the memories of immigrant relatives and the ever-present witness of immigrants in our country should help us to appreciate the awesomeness of the experience). Certainly, something so vast and mysterious (as the New World must have seemed) was bound to arouse all sorts of complex emotions among the settlers – both their brightest hopes and their darkest fears. Interpreted in the light of faith, the unknown of the ocean crossing became for the Pilgrims something known, as they recalled God’s Chosen People’s crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. Good Calvinists that they were, those early immigrants to New England recognized the religious and political community as a creative force, part of what went into the development of a good human life.

Prosperity has a way of dulling our senses, making us feel more secure and contented than befits a truly pilgrim people. In the great ongoing struggle between virtue and narcissism for the soul of America, the pilgrims’ legacy recalls an almost forgotten concept of community – not as an abstract principle but as an experience akin to friendship. 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 as citizens requires real community and a kind of feeling for one another akin to that found among people who are friends. Whenever great things are at stake, they remind us – as Thanksgiving Day itself was originally intended to remind us – that we are all ultimately dependent upon one another and upon God.

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