A Holy Thanksgiving | Sojourners

A Holy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving illustration
Candus Camera / Shutterstock.com

As October quickly turned to November, jack-o-lanterns and costumes were replaced by Christmas carols and Internet outrage over holiday cups. Every year we go from Halloween to Christmas with little space carved out for Thanksgiving.

There is no question that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Many times I have remarked that Thanksgiving is one of the greatest days of the year, that I cannot wait to go home, that Christmas needs to wait until December. Come every November, I begin my internal countdown, growing more excited each day closer to this holy holiday.

We often reserve the word “holy” for holidays such as Christmas and Easter, but for a multi-faith family such as my own, a holiday grounded in something more substantial than – let’s say trees for Arbor Day – while still allowing everyone to come with their own religious identity is not only a privilege, but a gift.

My family’s mix of Judaism and Christianity has never been a point of contention, but rather something that was as natural as breathing. Memories of singing “Silent Night” with candles at Christmas Eve services sit next to images of my aunt and uncle lighting candles and singing in Hebrew at Passover. We have always shared with each other — not in any way that felt like a bad ninth-grade world religions class, but as an organic way of living out what it means to be family.

Often, we conceptualize “interfaith” in terms of projects with goals. People of different faith traditions come together to work toward a common goal such as social justice. Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Muslims all join forces bringing with them their specific – and clearly defined – traditions. It’s not a bad way to use “interfaith,” but in the context of families and relationships, it feels lacking. When we sit around the Thanksgiving table, it is not in the context of each person bringing their faith for a discussion or cause. Our religious traditions and how they may differ is just one facet to our identities.

Thanksgiving is our chance to remind ourselves of our gratitude for the diversity in our family. What makes it special is that we come to the holiday together. Because most of my cousins and siblings have moved from the town we all used to call home, our time together can be infrequent. And while I am may go home at Christmas to celebrate and spend time with my Christian side of the family, my Jewish cousins are unlikely to take their vacation days then. As we spread out, it has become vital to hold fast to a holiday that brings us together: spiritually and physically.

And so, Thanksgiving has adopted a religious quality in my mind. It is grounded in gratitude and fellowship: two spiritual qualities that any person can relate to. Like any religious tradition, Thanksgiving has developed a set of rituals that sets the day apart. I know what food we will eat, what games we will play, and what music we will listen to when we fill our plates.

And like any religious tradition, things change. Each year we have invited new people into our celebration and into our family. We have adapted when required. We have lamented the years in which not everyone can come. We have used it as an opportunity to remember those who have passed away.

Every time I see another Christmas ad on Nov. 1, I cringe a little because I think we could all use more Thanksgiving. In a world where we define each other by a single identity or story, there is a need for a reminder that we can celebrate and live together not simply as Jews and Christians, or religious people and not religious people, but as families and friends. Yes, my Christian identity is important to me, but when I’m squeezed around a table laughing alongside my family, there are no labels – Christian, Jew, or interfaith – that can fully describe the glory of God and gratitude in those moments. Instead, I’ll lean across the table and ask someone to pass the mashed potatoes.