The most memorable Thanksgivings in my life were the ones that didn’t follow the traditional script. The ones I remember most are the ones that don’t come even remotely close to resembling a Norman Rockwell scene, with a mother in an apron placing a golden bird in front of a sweater-vested father eagerly wielding a carving knife in one hand and serving fork in the other while an excited, beaming family looks on with anticipation.
The Thanksgivings from my youth were generally warm and pleasant affairs: we would gather either at our house or a nearby aunt and uncle’s and eat the traditional foods – turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls, gravy, some token vegetables to counteract all the pie. The nice china dad brought back from Japan would get used, the grownups would play cards and the younger kids would play Uno, Risk, or just go outside and play tag. I remember those times fondly, but those memories all seem to run together in my head. Pleasant memories, for sure, but so similar from year-to-year that no particular year stands out.
One time in my late teens, though, my parents decided to go back East for Thanksgiving, possibly to New England or Chicago, and I found myself home alone for the first time. Instead of going to a relative’s house, I decided to invite over a bunch of college-age friends that weren’t eating with their families. We set up the table at my parent’s house and used the good china, but ate pizza, hot wings, and crab that someone got a good deal on. We even had some sort of Vietnamese soup. That evening still glows in my heart – it was wonderful to be surrounded by good friends just celebrating the day and each other, celebrating our uniqueness and our commonality.
A few years later I had a similar experience while in the Army. Rather than going home on leave, a group of soldiers and I decided to prepare a feast using the kitchen at the chapel where we worked. We invited other soldiers from the barracks nearby and had a great time serving each other and watching movies. I remember this day so well because I rigged a vote to make it happen: one of our Sergeants wanted to host Thanksgiving at her house for us all, even though it wasn’t nearly large enough. I told her we would decide by drawing from a hat that had a bunch of pieces of paper in it that said “chapel” or “house”. I ran into her a few years later, after we were both out of the Army and she couldn’t make me do push-ups, and confessed that every slip of paper in the hat said “chapel”.
As I write this, I’m preparing for this year to be memorable, too. We typically go to the grandparent’s house an hour’s drive away but decided to forego that this year to help someone heal from a recent procedure. We’ve noticed that our sons don’t care for turkey, so we’re just going to grill some steaks and make homemade macaroni and cheese. I’m going to make some cranberry sauce, but that’s about it for “traditional” dishes this year. We’ll likely settle in later and watch the latest episode of “The Mandalorian”. Nothing traditional, none of the usual, just a quiet day enjoying each other’s company and sharing food.
This year Thanksgiving falls on the first day of Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas. As I get ready to prepare food today, I find myself thinking about what else I’m preparing: for today, the Advent season, and the new year.
Like most today my thoughts turn to thankfulness. There are so many things for me to be grateful for if I look back at this past year – health, a loving family, a great canoe trip with my son, an opportunity to write for our local newspaper, an incredible school program that fell into place at exactly the right moment, and a warm and encouraging church life.
It’s lovely to be able to look back at the blessings that have occurred in my life recently, but as I look ahead, I see just how valuable it can be to look to the future with the same spirit. When I prepare for the future with a spirit of gratitude, I see opportunities instead of challenges. I see hope and anticipation, not fear and defensiveness.
It would be very easy for me to approach the coming year with dread: it’s an election year and I suspect the manure will be flying fast and hard both before and after next November, but I can prepare myself to approach the conversations around politics with love and understanding rather than fear and hate. It won’t always be easy, and I’m likely to get frustrated and even say four-letter words like “darn” or “poop” or their more colorful synonyms, but if I approach next year with a heart prepared for gratitude I can see an opportunity to come alongside the hurting and angry instead of shutting them out.
If I prepare myself to be compassionate and patient, I can find opportunities to see the world from other points of view, building empathy and relationships along the way.
If I prepare myself to see others as just fellow humans, I can see past all the harmful labels that cause so much division.
If I prepare myself to open my eyes, my arms and my heart to the unconventional, I can envision wonderful experiences with new friends and old around a table, laughing, playing games, and celebrating our uniqueness and our commonality, just like the many times in the past when I stepped outside of the “traditional” way.
So, today, I’m going to prepare for gratitude. Tomorrow, I’m going to prepare for hope. This Advent, I’m going to prepare for love. Next year, I’m going to prepare for understanding and patience, both for myself and all those I encounter.
And, right now, I’m preparing to join some friends for breakfast, then preparing to come home and take a nice nap.
What are you preparing?