Thanksgiving is such an American holiday. Turkey, stuffing, apple pie and football… what could be more American than that? Well, how about religion, or rather many different religions?
It used to be that Thanksgiving was strictly a family affair. Extended family members would often brave snow storms and other kinds of bad weather to arrive at the doorstep like Prodigal Sons and Daughters. Many a television commercial will attest to this “reality” of Thanksgiving for the American people: a warm, private family gathering with elaborate meals, hearty laughs and good memories around the dinner table. It is also a time when more traditional gender roles and family ideals are revived: women congregate in the kitchen to make meals and gossip, while men drink beer and watch football. Even if it’s just for a weekend, it helps us forget the wars and struggles outside our small home and focus on family.
For the last few years, however, I have noticed a particularly interfaith flavor at Thanksgiving events. While the holiday is still primarily celebrated at home, I find it infiltrating more and more public places, in particular the religious space. And more frequently we are mixing the traditions of these religious spaces even while we maintain more traditional roles at home. How? Enter the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Over the past few years I have noted many churches, synagogues and mosques offering not just a Thanksgiving service, but one geared to the interfaith family, where people of all faiths can gather around some good food and pray.
How and why this trend has gained popularity in recent years is unknown. But I do understand from a faith perspective why it is necessary. More than anything else, Thanksgiving is about family. Traditionally that word – family – has meant our blood relatives, and those related by marriage. The term is loosely defined in many families to include friends, neighbors or even strangers off the street, depending on the kindness of the family’s heart and their individual circumstances. In our ever-changing world, we are affected more and more by those we don’t know. Conflicts, wars and diseases have shown us that we do indeed live in a global village and nothing is so far removed from us that it cannot help or harm us. In such a world, the term ‘family’ takes on a whole new dimension, and includes not only people very different from us, but also faiths we may consider strange or unknown.
The interfaith Thanksgiving movement, as I like to call it secretly and somewhat admiringly, is an excellent example of this new reality. In a world where much that is bad can be attributed to religion, much that is good should also be attributed to religion. What better way to show solidarity, to express gratitude, to share each other’s religious traditions about food and prayer, than an interfaith Thanksgiving service? If we can all come together at the dinner table, why not in front of God, however we may view him (or her)? If we can open our hearts and our doors to strangers on a cold winter night, why not to the followers of a faith alien from our own?
Every interfaith Thanksgiving service is different – some read about thankfulness from their scriptures, some enact plays, some participate in dialogue, and some cook meals for the less fortunate. All, however, make the same statement: we are thankful to be in each other’s company because together we are a family, one that makes this country great. Happy Thanksgiving!
Image Courtesy of Prayer of Peace.