Meaning of Thanksgiving
I will be speaking at morning chapel attended by Upper and Middle School students, and I wanted to share with all of you what I plan to share with them about my perspective on the meaning of Thanksgiving.
We recently asked our fifth graders to write about what Thanksgiving meant to them so we could choose one of them to speak at our Lower School gathering this afternoon. This year, it was especially interesting for me to read over these essays knowing that I had been asked to do the very same thing for my time with all of you this morning. I had to fight some major food cravings and exercise restraint as I read essay after essay, because these fifth grade students described the most delicious meals! I expect that if you were asked this same question—What is the meaning of Thanksgiving?—you too would likely mention memories of food and family gatherings. I imagine, however, that you also could go deeper into what the holiday actually represents based on your life experiences and your ability to think abstractly.
The Webster’s dictionary defines thanksgiving as:
1) The act of giving
2) A prayer of expressing gratitude
3) A public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness
There is no mention of turkey, football, or vacation days away from school and work. The definition I just read relates to the common noun thanksgiving without the capital T. When I thought about the meaning of thanksgiving, my first thoughts were not directly related to the holiday. I believe this definition reflects the true meaning of what the holiday is supposed to represent—giving, gratitude, and celebration of divine goodness.
It has taken me many years to reach this level of understanding and appreciation for the holiday.
I can remember my early childhood days where the word Thanksgiving was solely defined by the holiday traditions. It meant holiday crafts and activities at school, class parties where we dressed as pilgrims and Native Americans, my mom busy cooking in the kitchen, and relatives coming to visit.
When I reached my middle school years, the importance of school crafts and cute activities disappeared, and I got excited about Thanksgiving because it meant a break from school, a big feast with lots of fabulous food, and extra time for me to see my family and friends.
My high school and college life was consumed with sports and November was basketball season and prime time for holiday tournaments. Therefore, Thanksgiving during this time period of my life meant basketball tournaments and traveling. Although we still enjoyed our share of traditional Thanksgiving holiday food, the location of the festivities changed depending on where the tournament was located. I was lucky enough to have a very supportive family who traveled with me, and whether we were in a big city or a small town, in 10 feet of snow or 80 degree weather, as long as we were together, we celebrated.
It wasn’t until I was about 24 that a major shift occurred in my definition of the word thanksgiving. I was playing professional basketball in Germany and was living far away from my family and friends. When November came around, there were no turkeys, pumpkins, or cornucopias on display in the shop windows because they didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving like we did in America. I did not have the opportunity to indulge in a big Thanksgiving feast, and for the first time, I was not surrounded by family and friends during the holiday season. I had a choice to make. I could wallow in my sadness and disappointment, which would have been easy to do considering November in Germany meant grey skies and a chance of rain every day, German basketball was just not the same level of play as American basketball, and I couldn’t understand a word my Hungarian coach said. Or, I could appreciate the fact I was even being given the chance to play the game I loved as my profession and experience life in a different culture while I built relationships with new friends. With this perspective, it become hard to even waste time being upset about missing turkey and mashed potatoes considering all I was blessed with. I was surprised by the feeling of joy that still remained within me despite the absence of the holiday traditions, food, and family and friends that I had grown accustomed to having.
When the actual holiday was removed from life, I was finally able to take time to reflect on why we even celebrated Thanksgiving in the first place. I realized it was bigger than the turkey, football, vacation days, and even celebrating with family and friends. It is a time set aside for us to reflect on our lives and celebrate all of our blessings. It is a time to appreciate and embrace all the challenges we encounter and recognize how these moments provide us opportunities to learn, grow, and ultimately become better people. It is a time to say thank you to others and find ways to give back, to show our gratitude for all that we have been given and all that we have received. It is a time that should not be reserved for the last Thursday in November, but a way of living every day of our lives. Thanksgiving is not about a holiday, but rather a spirit that should exists within each of us on a daily basis.
Everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Thanksgiving was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace. My hope is that all of you will take the joy and spirit of this holiday season and extend it to the other days of the year. I will leave you today with a quote from John F. Kennedy, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”