Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving - its all about peace!

Speaking as someone who grew up in England the "Thanksgiving" we celebrated was "Harvest Festival". I recall it happening on October 30th each year, though I don't remember whether this was the standard date or just 'local church option'.

It was, of course, a thanksgiving for harvest - something we've done since the birth of humanity, I suspect.

And it's something deeply rooted in Christian history: the Twelve did it (with startling results) at Shavuot ("Pentecost" - "The Fiftieth Day" - which was, after all, a harvest festival).

But our modern celebrations of harvest - especially American Thanksgiving - have become about a great deal more than just than a thanksgiving for the crops.

Anyone in the travel industry (and I used to be one of those) will tell you that Thanksgiving is the busiest travel season of the year, and the Sunday thereafter the busiest day. People travel for Thanksgiving much more than at any other time for any other celebration.

I believe this is because - unlike Christmas or Easter, both of which focus for most people on something that happened "long ago, on a continent far, far, away" - Thanksgiving in this country is the time we celebrate each other - we travel to be with family, to give thanks, to celebrate what it means to be gifted with so much and so many wonderful people. I suppose that, if we really understood Stewardship then we would focus our educational efforts each year around Thanksgiving (and some of us do).

There's an old saw I first heard over here that goes like this: "England, where 200 miles is a long way, and America, where 200 years is a long time". Perhaps that explains why the search for the meaning of Thanksgiving focused on the famous (or infamous, depending on which side of the table you sat) meal provided to the starving colonists by the First Nations people of the East.
I suspect that the modern human obsession with specific causes - a certain person did this ("Luther started the Reformation"), a specific event was the sole cause of that ("The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the cause of the First World War") - might explain why we focus so much on the Pilgrim/First Nations meal and lose the deeper significance of this festival of thanksgiving.

But that's a modern "Johnny-come-lately" understanding of "Thanksgiving". The Thanksgiving celebrated today finds its specific origins in the Civil War and a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. But it is possible to see the influence on him of Sarah Josepha Hale.

Sarah Hale was the first to urge equal education for women and girls in this country. She was the first to start day nurseries for working women, the first to suggest public playgrounds, and the first editor of the first woman's magazine in America - the "Ladies Magazine".

Sarah Hale was the author of two dozen books and hundreds of poems, including perhaps the best known nursery rhyme in the English language: "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

And it was Sarah Hale who proposed as early as 1827 a national day of Thanksgiving as a way of avoiding Civil War, writing literally thousands of letters, and deeply influencing Lincoln's decision to set a specific Thanksgiving day.

Thanksgiving, therefore, is profoundly a day for peace, a day of peace, a day demanding peace.

So much for the Pilgrims!

The good news is that, for many of us, that particular origin of the festival has slipped away, to be replaced by the much more human and personal celebration.

And that, in my view, is all to the good! A focus on the Pilgrim's meal is more divisive for our nation than it is uniting.

And perhaps, if we could recapture Hale's vision, Thanksgiving could become even more powerful in our lives. Perhaps it could be even more than a day for family and overeating and become a day each year when all of us actively promote Jesus' vision of peace, where the lion will finally lie down with the lamb, and where we share a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are welcome and where we finally recognize that, in the end, its all about each other!

Happy Thanksgiving!