Four days before Halloween, my neighbors ditched their pumpkins and scarecrows and put up Christmas decorations. I came home after a long day to find strands of flashing, multicolored lights across their porch railing and, on the lawn, three large, twinkling snowmen who (judging from their loopy expressions) looked to have gotten into the eggnog. So annoyed was I by this rush to Yuletide that I purposely left my Halloween decorations up, and in fact there is still a jack-o-lantern on my front steps as I write this.
Yet I couldn’t fault my neighbors; after a year like 2020, it’s only natural to wish for an early Christmas — and Thanksgiving, overlooked in the seasonal stampede, is not as straightforward a celebration as you might think.
In recent years, historians and educators have at last begun to heed Indigenous calls to reexamine this American tradition, which was officially declared an annual U.S. holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 (President George Washington had proclaimed a one-off commemoration in 1789 to mark the new Constitution, and successive presidents had followed suit, but the dates and months of the event varied).
For the Wampanoag people, the arrival of the Pilgrims at Patuxet (Pahtuksut), the Wampanoag name for the land later known as Plymouth, came amid a time of great suffering. In 1616, European traders had introduced yellow fever among the Wampanaog, and estimated 45,000 perished in the Great Death. Fearing additional infection, the Wampanoag waited three months before approaching the immigrants who came ashore from the Mayflower in 1620.
When some 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag did sit down to a three-day harvest feast in 1621 (a yield made possible for the Pilgrims by Wampanoag assistance), they had no idea their gathering would ultimately take on such divergent meanings. Both groups already had their own spiritual and cultural traditions for thanksgiving, but the joyous meal that now kicks off the Christmas season is for many Native Americans throughout the country a painful reminder of centuries of oppression, forcible removal, devastating disease and genocide.
Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have marked a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving, gathering at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to honor ancestors lost to this legacy, and to call attention to the ongoing struggles of Native Americans, who suffer disproportionately high levels of discrimination, poverty, marginalization and disease.
This year, such reexaminations of Thanksgiving have taken on a deeper significance as we reckon with ongoing racism, inequality, political division and a pandemic that has become for us an excruciating examen.
Amid so much sorrow, injustice, misunderstanding and uncertainty, then, can Thanksgiving be redeemed?
The psalmist shows us a path forward: “Offer praise as your sacrifice to God” (Ps 50:14).
Blessing the Lord even (and especially) when we’re sinful and wounded is humbling — and holy. Bowing our heads in contrition for past wrongs, in gratitude for present gifts, and in hope for a more perfect future is a sign of right relationship with our Maker.
In fact, repentance leads to the purest praise, since we come before God stripped of pride and self-will: “A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit. … Lord, you will open my lips; and my mouth will proclaim your praise. … My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn” (Ps 51: 12, 17, 19).
Ours is a faith of contrasts and contradictions: a cross leads to new life, poverty to riches, surrender to eternal victory. Through grace, we can taste both the sweet and the bitter in this occasion, and honor the day in its fullness.
Whether we spend the holiday in feasting or lamentation, or simply in quiet recollection and rest, may we embrace all that this Thanksgiving ever was or will be, and lift up hearts and hands — however broken and bloodstained — to the Lord who redeems all.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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