Thanksgiving may be my favorite holiday. I only hesitate a little in saying that because it's a close race with the greatest of feasts in our Church calendar, Christmas and Easter. But there are a few reasons I really love Thanksgiving.
While the Church year is filled to the brim with feasts, this one is a feast celebrated outside the Faith by all Americans. The Church's feast are for everyone, but this day, is celebrated by everyone in our country, regardless of faith (or lack of faith). Some times more than others, we need a unifying celebration. No one feels strange about saying, "Have a happy Thanksgiving!"
It is not necessary to be a person of faith to celebrate it, yet Thanksgiving is about giving thanks. It is implicit that we're giving thanks to God, and a great many people do so explicitly by going to Mass or a church service and by praying grace before their meal. Others express their thanks by stating ceremonially what they're thankful for around the table.
All that is required to celebrate this delicious holiday is a meal. Ideally, it will be shared with family or a collection of people you like. The menu is traditional, with colloquial variations, with the focus on turkey, stuffing/dressing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, and something green. Oh, yes, and pie! It's almost illegal to not have pumpkin pie, but apple and pecan are also traditional. The necessity of the meal is such that many people give generously to ensure that others in difficult financial times can partake of the bounty of the day.
Food, people and thanks - it's so simple! There is no gift giving, no decorations are required and cards are not sent as a rule. The meal can be served at a time of day preferred by the cook, either early or late. Other traditions are particular to families or regions. I recently learned that macaroni-and-cheese is a must in The South. My aunt from Maryland always added oysters to the stuffing. Families often have versions of dishes that it's just not Thanksgiving without. When hosting others for the meal, I like to find out what these dishes are for them (and, perhaps invite them to bring them, so they won't be disappointed). The simplicity is a huge selling point!
I do love observing the changing liturgical seasons, but I appreciate that Thanksgiving is just one day. Since it was decreed that it will always be on a Thursday, it's one day for which we get a four day weekend! It's comforting to think that, even if we should lose our religious freedom in this land - either through a terrible turn in the governing powers or the power of political correctness - it is unlikely that Thanksgiving will ever go away. First, because it is not explicitly religious and, perhaps more importantly, because it would take an awful lot of power to rob Americans of our traditional four-day-weekend food holiday!
Tradition is another great aspect of Thanksgiving that adds to its appeal and unifying ability. We all love tradition. We love to be tied by tradition to our own past together with the people around us. On that Thursday in November, we celebrate some of the better continuing aspects of our American character.
We look back to when some individuals set out to an unknown land to seek a fresh start. They crashed into those already living here and those who didn't kill each other or die from the harsh conditions helped each other make it through the worst of it - and celebrated their new situation together by sharing a meal and getting along for a while.
This story is a recapitulation of all human interactions throughout time. This is how cultures the world over have related. This is how America still functions (people come, we duke it out, those who survive feel more bonded with each other). Isn't that how marriage works, too? So, if you gather around the table this Thanksgiving and fight over politics, religion and personal issues, no need to worry. It's the story of America. Offer them a piece of pumpkin pie and pray they'll eventually move past it. Food is unifying.
I remember when the day after Thanksgiving was considered the first official day of Christmas shopping! That's what I still call it - rebuffing the newer name. It is the weekend on which is becomes fun to see Christmas decorations go up and hear Christmas carols playing in the stores (before then, they're really just shopping carols).
I like the quirky regional Thanksgiving day traditions. Some people play or watch football. Some towns have parades. I've heard of turkey shoots, 5K runs (one is called the "Gobble Wobble"). In Southern California, from whence I hail, there was the Twighlight Zone marathon on the local TV channel! And, let's remember the always popular Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special.
There is so much to love about this wonderful holiday and so little not to. The celebration can fit every circumstance and personality type. I have learned that small and simple is best for our family. Since extended family is so far away, we like to stay home and maybe host a couple we enjoy - if we can find anyone who wants to spend the day or meal with us! I'm not great at managing a menagerie of guests because my own small family has its own quirks and needs.
I have a lifetime of Thanksgiving celebrations, large and small, near and far, tucked away in my heart and memory. I call these to mind each year at this time and offer my utmost gratitude to the God of Love who has made possible all these feasts with people I care for in this land that I call my home.