Toward a Universal Thanksgiving

Interfaith ThanksgivingThis coming Sunday our neighborhood will hold its 6th annual Interfaith Thanksgiving celebration. As many as 500 members of Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Mormon congregations will join together for a program giving thanks and blessing children, followed by a communal thanksgiving dinner1.

As I’ve participated in the planning for the celebration each year, I’ve been pleased that our congregations are able to agree on so much. The nature of the holiday helps, I think, because Thanksgiving is nearly a universal holiday

Of course, there are problems. Historically, it’s foundational myths are tied closely to Christianity. And there is the whole mythic view of Native Americans, which ignores their culture and the colonist’s appropriation of their land and role in the deaths of millions.

BUT, there is nothing inherent in the idea of Thanksgiving that has to include these myths.

Compared to other holidays celebrated in the US, I think Thanksgiving is unique. It isn’t militaristic, like Veterans Day, Memorial Day and, to a large degree, Independence Day2. And it isn’t ethnic, like St. Patrick’s Day. Nor are its origins tied to a particular religious tradition, like Christmas and Easter—without Christ both these holidays loose much of their purpose (although modern US culture has certainly tended to downplay His role in their most public face). Even Halloween is technically sectarian, although its sectarian roots have been mostly forgotten.

Thanksgiving is also not purely historical like President’s day. Yes, its celebration is closely tied to the arrival of the Pilgrims—the mythic story we tell is merely an example of Thanksgiving, and ignores the declarations of thanksgiving done in European and other cultures before that. In this sense it is closer to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and New Years, but without as much of a commercial overtone (not for any lack of trying by marketers!)

Beyond its origins, Thanksgiving’s purpose, that of showing gratitude, is something taught by all religions (and even most atheists). As a result, the idea of a day of thanksgiving, of showing gratitude, is appealing to everyone (except, perhaps, followers of Ayn Rand [GRIN]).

Unfortunately, the mythology is problematic. The fact that the English colonists came from a Christian nation, and that their descendants ultimately controlled what became the United States, makes outsiders suspicious of the holiday, despite the near universal appeal of showing gratitude. In addition to Native Americans, the Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to the US in the early years of the 20th Century were suspicious of the holiday, I’m told, because of its Christian mythology and the frequent anti-semitism they faced.

Despite this problem, I believe that Thanksgiving has the best chance of our major holidays to be universal, something nearly every religion, or even lack of religion, can find not only palatable, but supportive of their faith or worldview. That’s hard to find among holidays. As a result, I suspect Thanksgiving is the best holiday for Interfaith efforts.

Nearly every religion or worldview finds interfaith efforts somewhat uncomfortable. Culturally others are different, they approach solving problems differently. So when there is a place where doctrines don’t clash, you make the most of it. You overlook the details of other’s approaches that seem strange.

This Sunday, as our neighborhood joins in an Interfaith celebration, we will join together and express thanks—something all everyone involved can agree to do. I know that other groups in other neighborhoods do similar things. And despite the relatively minor problems in its mythology and history, I will remember that this may be the best opportunity to reach out to others and cooperate. And break bread together. And, perhaps most of all, just talk.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. FWIW, the keynote speaker this year is Dr. Ruth Westheimer! who is a member of one of the congregations
  2. Please note, I’ve limited the holidays I’ve listed to the 10 most commonly celebrated US holidays

2 comments for “Toward a Universal Thanksgiving

  1. It takes work. Someone has to reach out to congregations that are not like his or her own. It is VERY rewarding and can make a difference in the neighborhood, but it requires effort. Thanksgiving is just one of the best opportunities to bring people together in a religious way.

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