Grateful hearts

Not, in fact, the first Thanksgiving.

Not, in fact, the first Thanksgiving.


I cannot remember a time when people didn’t complain that the Thanksgiving holiday was being lost in a premature rush to Christmas. Lately, though, the chorus is getting more frantic. More and more, retailers are trespassing on one of the few holidays left that is nominally devoted to family. The Post-Dispatch tells me that many people will be having what amounts to Thanksgiving lunch so that they can hit the sales at dinnertime.

In a way, though, it’s not inappropriate, because the origins of the holiday as we know it were specifically built around retailing: Franklin Delano Roosevelt deliberately placed it on the fourth Thursday in November in order to kick off the Christmas shopping season.

But that shopping season has spread inexorably back to October and even earlier. The Christmas decorations go up as the Hallowe’en decorations come down.

Thanksgiving now occupies a position in the cavalcade of fall and winter holidays like that of Philadelphia in the Boston-Washington Corridor. It’s just one more stop in the megalopolis, and not even the most memorable one.

The American Thanksgiving has its own mythology: the Pilgrims, fleeing persecution, celebrating the first Thanksgiving dressed in their best black-and-white, chowing down on turkey with the Indians and then playing football after dinner.

In fact, the Pilgrims weren’t persecuted; they just wanted to run things in their own grim Calvinist way, without the distraction of neighbors who had fun. Theirs was not the first Thanksgiving in North America; the colonists of New Spain have that distinction. Theirs wasn’t even the first English Thanksgiving observance; the Anglican colonists in Jamestown held services of thanksgiving with the Book of Common Prayer and followed them with feasts for 20 years before the Puritans arrived. They wore clothing in all sorts of colors. Peace with the natives was a sometime thing, and venison seems to have been more important at that dinner than wild fowl. (I just made up the part about football.)

The concepts embodied by the myth, however, are what we should remember: gathering with family and friends, enjoying God’s bounty, and, most of all, giving thanks for all that we have.

We seem to be better at the first two of those than at the third, and by “we,” I mean “human beings.” The Israelites grumped at Moses in the wilderness because they got bored with the perfectly filling and nutritious manna that God provided, and wanted more variety in their diets. When Jesus healed 10 lepers, only one bothered to come back and say “Thank you.” And in today’s gospel, the crowds who were miraculously fed bread and fish the day before have chased him across the Sea of Galilee to ask for seconds.

Jesus calls them on it: “You’re only here because of the bread. You’re ignoring the point, which is to believe in God and seek eternal life.” We have the same tendency. We’re quick to ask God for the things we need and the things we want, but when we receive them, we often forget to send our thank-yous. We have so much for which to be thankful, but during the Prayers of the People, there’s a lot more murmuring during the moments allowed for special intercessions than there is during the time for offering our gratitude.

We could start by reflecting on the blessings we have right here, right now. It’s a beautiful day that didn’t give us any weather-related excuses to stay home. We’re worshipping in a beautiful church with our families and friends, with a meaningful liturgy and good music. When we leave this place, it will almost certainly be to head to a big meal filled with the favorite foods of our particular tradition, again with family and friends. We live in a country in which abundance is the rule and not the exception, something that too much of humanity does not share. That just scratches the surface.

Sometimes we take our blessings for granted. Sometimes we only appreciate them fully when they’re threatened or lost: a parent, a friend, a job, good health. We have a new appreciation for electricity when a power outage forces an abrupt change of lifestyle. I awoke this morning to discover that the hot water wasn’t working. I had taken for granted that it would be there when I turned on the tap. I’ll appreciate it actively when it’s fixed, but soon enough I’ll be taking it for granted again.

On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, when my daughters were small, they would always ask, “Why isn’t there a children’s day?” We would always answer, “Because every day is children’s day.” We take a day once a year to honor and remember the people we usually take as a given, but we can and should do better.

We can make something more out of Thanksgiving Day than most of us currently do, too. We can remember to start every day by giving thanks to God for all that we have, not just the big things but the little things as well. We can remember to thank everyone who helps us. We can make a habit out of gratitude, in every aspect of our lives.

Grateful hearts help to open us to the love of God. They help us to share that love with our neighbors. We can make Thanksgiving more than a bump in the rush of retail madness by pondering its meaning and lessons, and remembering them in the weeks to come: to be grateful instead of greedy, to appreciate the small and simple things as well as the big-ticket items, to make the life of a harried clerk or a frazzled mother a little easier. We can remember that the greatest gift in any season comes from God and God alone, the gift of the Bread of Life.

Gracious God, give us grateful hearts that rejoice in all your gifts. Help us to be glad in giving as well as receiving, and remind us to treat every day as a day of thanksgiving. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


Thanksgiving means different things to different people: family reunions, a few really good hymns that we hear only once a year, tons of traditions, gluttony that’s not only sanctioned but encouraged, and, for many, the beginning of the Christmas season.

Oh, yes – and then there’s the original purpose of the holiday: giving thanks to God for blessings received.

For me, this Thanksgiving didn’t seem to promise much. The family members who usually join us are unable to travel this year, and my recent diagnosis of breast cancer certainly put a damper on things.

Inflammatory carcinoma comes in only two flavors, Stage III and Stage IV: “nasty but curable” and “nasty and incurable.” It’s a systemic cancer, one which was invariably fatal until fairly recently, when someone hit on the idea of doing chemotherapy first and surgery later, instead of vice versa. So it was a huge relief to learn on Wednesday that mine is Stage III. (Everything is relative.)

That’s one blessing and occasion for thanks, and it’s a big one. But even greater than that is the huge, unexpected wave of love and kindness that has enveloped me from all sides: scores of encouraging messages from Facebook friends and colleagues at the paper; gentle assistance from nurses, technicians and doctors; meals cooked and delivered, rides to the doctor, cards, encouraging words, and generous gifts of time.

And there is prayer, spreading like ripples in a pond, from those who first heard my diagnosis to those  who just learned of it, on church prayer lists, through the Ship of Fools, from New Zealand to the UK to North America. Christian, Jewish and Muslim friends are praying for me, former colleagues at Lyric Opera of Chicago are “praying praying praying,” and a telephone representative for my health insurance company volunteered that she would keep me in her prayers.

For the love and concern of friends, the determination and wisdom of medicos, for the gifts of time, music, books, and good humor, I give thanks to God.  I won’t make it to church to sing those beloved hymns; for the first time since I was six years old, I’m not responsible for any part of the feast. But this Thanksgiving, I am more truly grateful than ever before.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Holiday smackdown

I rushed all week: serving as acolyte in the kitchen of a dear and domestically gifted friend who kindly did extra baking so that my Thanksgiving table could have homemade pies; cleaning, washing, shopping, and otherwise preparing for the arrival of a quartet of out-of-town relatives; working to get stories written before the week’s early deadlines hit.

On Thanksgiving Day I got up early and did my prep work, mixing the sweet potatoes and getting the table ready, clearing the decks for the turkey-fixing team. While they labored, I got out from underfoot and ran to a church in the city for a couple of hours to help serve dinners with other parishioners from St. Peter’s, returning in time to finish up those dining-related things left undone that ought to be done.

Then it was time for dinner, for cleanup, the pies, more cleanup, sitting and talking and finally to bed, feeling unusually stuffed and falling asleep with no trouble whatever.

Sometime on Friday morning it hit me: Advent begins on Sunday. There’s no breathing space this year, no time to go from “Come, ye thankful people, come” to “Lo, He comes with clouds descending.” It’s time to clip some holly for the Advent wreath, to find the fresh set of candles and the dear little Advent angels, and remember where I stashed the Advent calendars I bought on sale last year.

Around us, the world is revving into Christmas, and we’ll inevitably be pulled into it. But first, it’s time to take a deep breath and a few deep thoughts, to slow down, however briefly, and remember: For us, as Christians, Advent is a season of a different kind of preparation, as we await the arrival of the Light of the World.

— sbm

(Music for Thanksgiving or any other season: “All people that on Earth do dwell,” by the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral.)