How is it that we have turned our one national holiday asking us to give thanks into a day of self-indulgent feasting, marching bands and watching tough guys beat up on each other while chasing a football down the field?
In both Canada and the U.S., the day was originally set aside as an occasion of prayerful thankfulness. In Canada, it was the British explorer, Martin Frobisher, who wanted to give thanks for his safe arrival in the New World (Newfoundland) in 1578 that is the basis for a marked celebration. In the U.S., it was the pilgrims who had survived a particularly harsh winter around Plymouth, Mass., in the year 1621 that triggered a day of feasting and thanks to their Creator for what they considered the blessing of abundance.
When we can today easily jet to any place on the globe in a matter of hours, the voyage doesn’t particularly call for a day—or even a minute—of thanksgiving for safe travel, does it? And with our grocery stores stocked to the hilt with not only one choice of cereal, but perhaps 50, it doesn’t necessarily call forth a day of thanksgiving for the genetically-altered and sometimes sugar-coated “grains” that sustain us.
Besides, we hardly know the harshness of the weather with air conditioning in the summer, and furnaces powered by gas or electricity (from a variety of sources) to warm us in the winter. Over the 433 intervening years, we have been diminished to being happy with a day off work and the chance to gather the family together around a feast of turkey and pumpkin pie—not bad considering the stresses of the workplace and the need to have some quality time with our loved ones.
It seems, though, that we could work harder at redeeming what has become mostly a secular break in our work-week, given the spiritual discipline of its origins. After all, in many Canadian Mennonite homes, we are only a generation or two away from the harsh living conditions resulting from the varied journeys from the Old World to the New.
Perhaps we could devote the day to storytelling by Grandpa or Grandma of those bygone days when the wind-swept, sometimes drought-stricken Prairies were part of the soon-to-be-forgotten tale of living on the precipitous edge of survival. Such a narrative now seems foreign and almost unbelievable to children and grandchildren growing up in a land of plenty—both of material abundance and opportunities to advance.
And a day of thankful living could wrest us from our tendency, as spoiled affluent children of the 21st century, to complain about just about everything: from cloudy, overcast days, higher taxes and diminishing public services, to too much homework, not enough days in the week, long sermons and hard benches, the decline of quality health care, and superfluous politicians who promise the sky and deliver a little boy’s wagon of services.
I remember, as a boy, that we went to church on Thanksgiving morning, another really substantive thing about which to complain! We went to church far too much, I thought. Why do we have to ruin this happy day with another church service?
While I’m not recommending another church service, it might be good for us, at the Thanksgiving blessing of the meal, to read what the Apostle Paul had to say in his benediction to the new congregation at Thessalonica back in ancient Greece: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
What Paul was calling for in the new believers was a different lifestyle—developing a life of thanks-living—not only verbally giving thanks, but living it every moment. Turn from complaining, self-pity and wallowing in your misery, to a life of joy and constant prayer, reflecting the divine characteristics of wholesome and holistic living, a willful determination to see the good, the light, the pleasant, the positive, regardless of circumstances, even persecution, which is something about which we know very little.
A little less whining and a little more joyous living, starting on Thanksgiving Day, might give us, our families, our fellow workers and our neighbours a better outlook. And we might get back to what the day was intended to be.
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