“Thanksgiving Day is coming; gobble, gobble, gobble. Lets give thanks for this day!”
These words are a remnant of the only song about Thanksgiving I remember from my childhood. My family had the main Thanksgiving meal at one grandma’s house in a New Jersey city, then we would pile into my dad’s big Chevy and rumble across the swamps and oil refinery fields to my other grandma’s for dessert. Thanksgiving was a moderately fun holiday. We’d watch football games. My teenage cousin would impress me and disgust everyone else with his uncanny ability to chug creamed corn. Yet Thanksgiving is the single event where I rack up the greatest number of deadly sins: gluttony, sloth, envy (I wish I had that drumstick!) and pride (Why isn’t anyone eating the cookies I made?!) Dante would have a field day imagining the cosmic justice I’m due for my days of apple cider-fueled hedonism. Most probably, it would involve turkeys getting revenge by gobbling Creed songs. Maybe it’s time to celebrate Thanksgiving as it was intended.
The traditional notion about Thanksgiving is one of family bonding, warmth and giving to the less fortunate. Sadly, this is lost because Thanksgiving occupies an awkward position in the pantheon of national holidays — kind of a highway rest stop for us to eat and catch our collective breath before spending the next month in a hectic Jingle-Belled craze. Most American schoolchildren are taught the story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, complete with paper plate turkey (though tempered by the fact that the European colonists would soon throw their native hosts off their land.) Thanksgiving has survived for the whole of the nation’s history. President Abraham Lincoln gave the day its familiar characteristics in the midst of the Civil War. It is sad we have gotten so far from the traditional approach to the day, so I offer these five relatively easy suggestions to make your turkey daymore spiritually fulfilling.
- Actually give thanks — Many of us treat the Thanksgiving meal like a sports event. We restlessly wait for the food to be placed on the table so the gorging can begin. Conversation dies down to nothing and we communicate in a series of grunts and dirty looks. A way to correct this is to actually give thanks to a higher power for another year. Take time before the meal to go around the table and think of something you are thankful for. It doesn’t have to be overtly religious — just a simple time for reflection about the things you were lucky enough to receive. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t think of some deep philosophical thing to give thanks for; this year I plan to give thanks that dogs continue to be cuter then cats.
- Help out — Many families celebrate Thanksgiving like the movie Groundhog Day, with the same family members doing the same things every year. If you aren’t normally one of the people who helps prepare the meal and set the table, peel yourself away from the sofa and start peeling potatoes. Even if it shakes a few branches in your family tree, stop watching football for 20 minutes and fill salt shakers. It’s good karma to help prepare the meal you are about to eat. My personal job is preparing drinks for the older people in my family. Most likely, anything you do to help will be appreciated.
- Look around — The greatest cause of stress and joy for many in life is family and friends. Often, Thanksgiving brings together people who haven’t been in each other’s company for months or even years. When you are all together, take time to look around and soak in everyone’s collective aura. The old cliché that life is too short is absolutely true. Anything can happen between this turkey day and the next. It may be fun to gossip about how a friend looks or lay scorn on a relative you don’t like, but in the end it isn’t worth it. This is the tip I am most passionate about and it is also the easiest to accomplish. All you have to do is simply be aware of everyone’s presence and think about your own place in the family. Last Thanksgiving, my dad sat next to me and chatted about an ancestor he had known who’d been born in 1885. On my dad’s other side was a cousin who was born in 2006. That simple fact floored me. I reflected on and prayed about how short our time here really is, and how we simply must appreciate our time in the great human experiment. Do not take your time with anyone for granted or assume it’s never-ending. Holidays are chances to forge good memories; don’t waste the opportunity.
- Play a game — One of the great joys in life is playing a game. I know many friends who gather around Thanksgiving to play tackle football or go out for karaoke. Maybe it is time for you to start a fun new Thanksgiving tradition. If you are blessed with some time off, couple that with the fact that friends and family are around and plan a really fun event. You could run a Turkey Trot 5K or simply invite old friends over to watch a movie. Take advantage of the time to reconnect and swap fond memories; catching a touchdown pass is an added bonus.
- Help — Soup kitchens and food pantries are packed to the gills on Thanksgiving with well-intentioned people looking to help their fellow man. If your local soup kitchen needs help, by all means help them out. But otherwise, while this is certainly admirable, consider other things you can do. In this economy, many charitable organizations are scrambling for donations or food supplies that can last them through times when people aren’t as well-intentioned. Why not organize a food drive or donating money with your friends and family.
Hopefully these tips will encourage you to find new ways to center yourself and gain understanding of your place with friends and family this Thanksgiving, and make it more than a rest stop between holidays. Just don’t fill up on apple cider: my grandma says you will get a tummy ache.
Originally published November 24, 2010