It’s hard to say how much historical truth of the first Thanksgiving remains in our 21st Century holiday. One thing is clear: myth, the passage of time, and rampant consumerism have expanded the meaning of the holiday way beyond simple gratitude for a plentiful harvest.
Of course, we still gather together, eat a lot of food, and think about the things we are grateful for. There’s a certain logic in our celebrating gratitude at harvest time. In the old days we might be celebrating that we were going to have enough food to last the winter. However, even in this land of plenty too many go hungry, and not just during a harsh winter. And most of us who gratefully do not to have to choose between food and heat, can and should recognize and acknowledge our good fortune. The ritual of expressing gratitude at Thanksgiving time helps us remember that others aren’t as fortunate. Indeed, if the pandemic taught us anything, it taught us that too many of us live frightening close to the economic edge, where want and need define existence.
I am a big fan of rituals. I know them to be an important way to connect with our ancestors and family or societal history and it helps to create a rhythm to the year that centers and grounds us. Like everything else, rituals should evolve with the times. Few of us are directly connected to the earth in the ways our ancestors were, or actually raise our own food anymore.
Perhaps it’s time to see Thanksgiving as an opportunity to celebrate those who do, the farmers and migrant farm workers who do that work for us, here and abroad. The cargo ship captains and crews and stevedores who bring it from halfway around the world to American ports. Truckers who haul it from one edge of the continent to the other. Even the Amazon drivers who race from one address to another to deliver our smallest desires to our doorstep. It doesn’t take much to demonstrate that gratitude – a heartfelt Thank You to the driver or to the supermarket checkout clerk (if you still use their lanes) can be surprisingly meaningful.
Thanksgiving rituals can even expand to include our growing awareness that we’ve collectively put the planet in danger and encourage us to give thanks to the Earth itself for providing the food that sustains us. One way to demonstrate that gratitude is to use the holiday as an opportunity to consider what can be done to reduce our own individual impact on the environment. Consider the irony that what we choose to celebrate the earth and show gratitude for its abundance is most likely harming it. If you are able to, buy a turkey raised without antibiotics on a local farm that may treat the Earth more respectfully than do factory turkey farms. Consider serving more locally grown vegetables and grains. Reduce your use of plastics and household goods that contain harmful chemicals. It’s not easy to do, but it’s not that hard either. It just takes a decision to be mindful – and grateful – year-round.