This year I am taking two weeks to help us all get ready for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday (that would be Passover), but it is my favorite holiday that we can all celebrate together as Americans. Thanksgiving is one of the most significant rituals that helps make us all Americans.
Religious rituals bind us to the community of believers in our faith. Secular rituals bind us to the citizens of our nation. We all know the names and natures of the rituals of our faith, but we do not, I believe, sufficiently understand the names and natures of our secular American rituals. There are not many American rituals left, and Thanksgiving is the best of them.
Veterans Day has passed. President's Day and Columbus Day are under attack and sinking fast. New Year's Day is nothing but hangovers and football. Independence Day is suffering from a ban on fireworks displays in many places where the expense or the fear of fires have extinguished the boomers. Mother's Day has survived ... because we are talking about mothers here! However, Father's Day is basically gone. Halloween has not only survived but is thriving (but at its root, Halloween is really the remnant of the Catholic holy day, All Hallows' Eve, which is the night before All Saints' Day). Valentine's Day is on life support from the flower and candy lobby, but it also is a secularized religious holiday. And of course, Christmas endures, but thanks to Santa and twinkly trees and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, has shed much of its deep religious importance in return for secular acceptance. I am obviously not a Christian, but I am on the side of every Christian who still struggles to keep the Christ in Christmas.
Alone among all America's secular holy days sits Thanksgiving, and I, for one, am not going to let it fade away into some desiccated form like the turkey/stuffing/mashed potato/cranberry po' boy I ate while visiting our son Max in New Orleans! Thanksgiving is more than that po' boy. Thanksgiving is the best of us. We are a fractured and grieving nation in these times, but Thanksgiving still unites us and forms us into a single people. The flag and the pledge are important. But in the face of our pluribus, Thanksgiving is truly our unum.
So let me implore you to keep the soul of Thanksgiving alive at your family table. The first part of this ritual is not the presentation of the turkey (most of us do not go in for the Norman Rockwell full bird on a plate presentation of the turkey anyway. We hack that sucker up in the kitchen and put the pieces and slices on a platter.) No, the first part of any spiritually authentic Thanksgiving dinner ought to be the ritual of going around the table and sharing something we are thankful for, or giving a gift of a poem or a hymn (my favorites are included below). After thanks is given, the meal can begin. What I have in mind for the beginning of the Thanksgiving ritual is already a part of the family traditions of L from Appleton in my home state of Wisconsin. She wrote to me in response to my column about how to teach children about prayers:
"Thank you so much for reprinting these great descriptors of prayer. I usually provide each year some short offering at Thanksgiving to my children and grandchildren to get the focus off of food and onto God, from whom all blessings flow. Your four kinds of prayer will be my offering this year. It is especially good for believing and non-believing family members, as we remember the real reason for this special American holiday. Thanks again and have a wonderful Thanksgiving."
Why is it that the people who already know the soul of Thanksgiving are the ones who keep thinking up new ways to make it shine?
And ... if you are willing to risk hymn singing, here is my run away choice. You know the tune:
"Bless this house, O Lord we pray,
Make it safe by night and day;
Bless these walls, so firm and stout,
Keeping want and trouble out.
Bless the roof and chimneys tall,
Let Thy peace lie over all;
Bless this door, that it may prove,
Ever open to joy and love.
Bless these windows shining bright,
Letting in God's hean'nly light;
Bless the hearth a blazing there,
With smoke ascending like a prayer.
Bless the folk who dwell within,
Keep them pure and free from sin;
Bless us all that we may be fit, O Lord,
To dwell with Thee,
Bless us all that one day we may dwell,
O Lord, with Thee
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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