By Father Herb Weber
Michael celebrated his first Thanksgiving as a married man at the home of his wife Maria’s parents. Gathered for the huge midday meal were her parents and Maria’s siblings with their spouses. All the traditional foods were served and the conversation was good.
After the meal, Michael went into his in-laws’ living room, turned on the television and sat down to watch football games. He was just settling in when Maria came into the room and asked what he was doing.
His answer was that he was planning to spend the afternoon watching games or allowing the turkey-induced tryptophan to bring on a nap. In defense, Michael said that is what his dad and brothers and he always did at their house after the Thanksgiving Day meal.
Maria’s quick answer was, “Well, we don’t do that in our family.” Then she added that everyone helps clean up so they can all relax.
Michael shared his faux pas in Maria’s presence, and both of them assured me that they would continue to learn from each other.
With perhaps the exception of Christmas, it seems no holiday has as much tradition as Thanksgiving. But it soon becomes clear that those traditions vary from house to house.
One family may have unique ethnic foods at their meal while another has an afternoon game of touch football. One family I know always starts with a 5K run. In my previous parish where we offered a free community meal, many parishioners volunteered to serve the food first before going to their own homes to celebrate.
Thanksgiving Day holds a special place for pastors. I have come to find this is a legal holiday that can also easily be experienced as a holy day. I don’t mean a holy day in any official sense, but a day where a holy spirit pervades.
That holiness is found in the elements of giving thanks, discovering unity and reaching out to others. In truth, it is not that hard to infuse the Christian element of these qualities into a day already special in many people’s minds. Holiday traditions can easily become holy traditions.
Beginning with giving thanks, people already know that this harvest festival has roots in appreciation for the bounty of the earth. At the same time, many 21st-century people struggle to associate the food on the table with its agricultural source.
Thanking God for food is just the tip of the iceberg of showing appreciation on Thanksgiving Day. With a few reminders, churches can help people learn the goodness of expressing gratitude. People can be reminded to set aside time for prayers of gratitude, especially before the big meal. This can easily draw attention to the many blessings received every day and throughout the year.
For most Catholic parishes, a morning Mass has become essential for Thanksgiving Day. At our church, we have consciously worked to make this eucharistic celebration a focal point. It is a Mass that emphasizes all the blessings of the year. Furthermore, we work to provide a warm setting where people have a feeling of family.
Celebrating the Eucharist itself makes sense since that very act is all about giving thanks. The Thanksgiving Day Mass flows from a faith that is filled with gratitude, connecting with every Mass celebrated throughout the year. Giving thanks becomes a prayer of admission of our dependence on a gracious and loving God, a major step of spirituality.
The act of prayerfully giving thanks also helps us celebrate unity. Although private prayer is good, communal prayer in church or at the dinner table draws people together. We not only thank God for each other, we thank God with each other.
When we started this parish some 12 years ago without property or building, a small Lutheran Church allowed us use of their space on a regular basis, a kindness for which I remain grateful.
When the first Thanksgiving was nearing, the pastor asked me what my thoughts were. I knew I wanted to have a parish gathering for prayer. He said his congregation desired to invite us to join them on the Wednesday evening before the holiday for a joint prayer service.
And to sweeten the offer, he said they have a tradition of having “all things pumpkin” to share afterwards — pumpkin pies, cakes, breads and more. That evening’s gathering reminded me of the traditional image of Pilgrims and Native Americans feasting in unity.
Finally, the tradition of Thanksgiving Day for many people is to reach out to others, sharing and including those alone or overlooked. Sharing is always an expression of gratitude for what we have. Besides serving free meals at church or community centers, many have found other ways to share.
Over the years I have brought refugees from other countries to my family’s Thanksgiving meal. Exchange students have been present as well. And an elderly neighbor of my brother was always a special guest. All were graciously included.
By expressing gratitude in prayer, by finding expressions of unity and by sharing with and including others, we can help people create new traditions as we find this holiday becomes even more holy to us.
Father Weber is the founding pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in Perrysburg, Ohio.