Preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday can be a sacred ritual. Weeks in advance several family members begin planning the menu for our Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, there is little variation from year to year—turkey, dressing, dumplings, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, pies, dinner rolls, and so on—but an afternoon of list-making, guest-counting, and recipe-searching ensues. Some years, even a second planning session is required—to count plates and chairs, to create a map of the food line, or to scour advertisements for butter sales. The planning sessions have become part of the practice of Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving planning sessions and meals that immediately followed the passing of each of Joe’s parents was bittersweet. We missed their presence. But the ritual itself, while grounding us in the present, was a reminder to be grateful even in our sadness and grief.

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History tells us that the first Thanksgiving, in 1621, commemorates the gratitude Pilgrims had for a bountiful harvest. This is a simplistic, and perhaps, mythical snapshot, but it is where the ritual begins for Americans.  Thanksgiving is celebrated in many other countries as well for a variety of historical, religious and secular reasons. Primarily Thanksgiving is about just that—giving thanks. Thanksgiving is a ritual of planning and remembering to be grateful—even in times of division and darkness.

Thanksgiving, as a legally observed holiday in the United States, was championed by Sarah Josepha Hale (October 24, 1788 – April 30, 1879), an American writer and author of the infamous nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb“. Sarah, fortunate that her parents believed in education for girls, was home-schooled and eventually became a teacher herself and, later, an advocate of higher education and workplace rights for women. When Sarah was 34 years old, her husband died of a stroke—her oldest child was 7 and the youngest was born two weeks after her husband’s death.

It’s hard to imagine the sadness, grief and dark days that Sarah Josepha Hale endured. And, yet, Sarah believed in Thanksgiving. She wrote: “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which a whole community participate. They bring out, and together, as it were, the best sympathies of our nature…because all are privileged to be happy in their own way.”

Sarah wrote many letters, working tirelessly over three decades, to convince American presidents, from Taylor to Lincoln, to acknowledge Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She was adamantly opposed to slavery, yet desperately desired a healing between the north and the south. She wrote, “We are already spread and mingled over the Union. Each year, by bringing us oftener together, releases us from the estrangement and coolness consequent on distance and political alienations; each year multiplies our ties of relationship and friendship. How can we hate our Mississippi brother-in-law?”

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Letter to Abraham Lincoln; Sarah Josepha Hale

Finally Abraham Lincoln, with the turmoil of the Civil War in mind, agreed to make Thanksgiving a holiday that both the north and south would celebrate, hoping to unify a deeply divided country. It was in the darkest days that gratitude was encouraged.

Thanksgiving isn’t just one day. Thanksgiving is a practice. It is a plan to be grateful. It is gratitude rather than grumbling. “Do not grumble or speak ill of others. Place your hope in God alone.”- Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 4:39-41

Thanksgiving is a reminder that we can, and must, practice gratitude even in the darkest of days—in the midst of a deeply divided nation, in the woundedness of a broken heart, in the storms of a conflicted relationship.

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Our Thanksgiving table may not have the same faces around it that have always been there, but it is possible to hold those loved ones who have passed on, or moved on, in our hearts. May you have a Thanksgiving day of gratitude, a day to remember that there is room at the table, or in your heart, for everyone.

Carrie Newcomer, Room at the Table—

Let our hearts not be hardened to those living on the margin
There is room at the table for everyone
This is where it all begins, this is how we gather in
There is room at the table for everyone

Too long we have wandered, burdened and undone
But there is room at the table for everyone
Let us sing the new world in, this is how is all begins
There is room at the table for everyone

There is room for us all
And no gift is too small
There is room at the table for everyone
There’s enough if we share
Come on pull up a chair
There room at the table for everyone

Norwood, Arlisha. “Sarah Hale.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2017. Date accessed.

Baker, Peggy M. “THE GODMOTHER OF THANKSGIVING: the story of Sarah Josepha Hale” Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum 2007.

Maranzani, Barbara. “Abraham Lincoln and the “Mother of Thanksgiving”, October 3, 2013.

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