Thanksgiving, Lament, and the Story We Tell

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Thanksgiving. That word holds profound meaning for Americans, most of it nostalgic. I remember in grade school when our classes would present Thanksgiving pageants that retold the story of Thanksgiving. We all know it by rote:

The pilgrims were persecuted in England (probably because the men wore buckles on their hats, culottes, and white stockings — who does that?). Anyway, in 1620, they got in a boat and sailed to America, where they met brown people in paper cutout, feathered headdresses and hand-me-down 1970s fringe vests and wrangler jeans. The pilgrims said “Hi!” and the headdress people (called “Indians,” for no good reason) said “How!” When the pilgrims realized they didn’t know how to cook the food in this “new world,” the Indians showed them how to cook cornbread, cranberry sauce, and collard greens (or at least that’s how the story went in my school). Turkeys were plentiful in the new world, so when the hat buckle people and the headdress people held a feast in November of 1621 to celebrate their new friendship, a turkey sat at the center of the table.

This is the way modern adults struggle to teach children the foundations of our nation’s history. What will it take for us to face our history head on — to face the sinful foundations upon which we stand?


How You Can Honor Both Sides of the Thanksgiving Table

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When we think about the meeting of the first pilgrims and the Native Americans, we usually connect vicariously to one side of that old Plymouth encounter, mysteriously linking our faith journey to the early pilgrims’ faith journey. But what about those long-ago Native Americans? Is there a reason to remember them as more than a foil for the pilgrims?

Year after year we think warmly of that first union of the pilgrims and the Native Americans — and then we continue on in the supposed faith tradition of one of those peoples without another thought to the fate of the others.

So what role do those old Native Americans play in our faith today, and how might we bring them to mind or honor them? Here are a few ways you can faithfully honor both sides of the Thanksgiving table this year.

The Underside of Thanksgiving

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I love Thanksgiving.

I love the food, the fellowship, the friends and family, the football, and did I mention that I love the food.  Unashamedly it might very well be my favorite holiday.  Yet, despite all my warm feelings about Thanksgiving, I am not blind to its historical shortcomings. 

As Jane Kamensky says, “…holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now.” I think she’s right about this.  In so many cases, our national celebrations and observances are mere expressions of our collective aspirations and not our actuality.  One clear example of this is the history and practice of the Thanksgiving holiday.

As it goes, every year people throughout this nation gather for a commemorative feast of sorts where we give praises to God for the individual and collective blessings bestowed upon us.  This tradition goes back to the 17th century when the New England colonists, also known as pilgrims, celebrated their first harvest in the New World. 

On the surface, this seems harmless enough but a closer reading of history tells a more dubious story. 

Pope to Canonize John Paul II and John XXIII in April

Pope John Paul II participates in a procession in August, 2000. RNS file photo courtesy Universal Press Syndicate.

Popes John Paul II and John XXIII will be formally declared saints on April 27, 2014, the Vatican said Monday. Pope Francis made the announcement during a meeting with cardinals gathered in Rome.

John Paul, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, and John, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, are considered two of the most influential religious leaders in the world in the last century, and they represent two poles in Roman Catholicism — John XXIII is a hero to liberals, while John Paul II is widely hailed by conservatives.