Thanksgiving is possibly my favourite holiday. It lands in my favourite season. Our observation of Thanksgiving largely revolves around food. It normally means gathering with the family in one place. There isn’t the same level of chaos that comes from doing Christmas with small children. I do, of course, love Christmas and Easter, but as a clergy person, those occasions, though filled with joy and reflection, are also exhausting. By Boxing Day and Easter Monday, I’m usually toast. Thanksgiving is in some ways easier.
But this year isn’t normal.
What do you do when it’s not normal? Gathering everyone together isn’t feasible this year for most families. So many have lost jobs because of COVID. Many are in grief. Others are dealing with fear. Many are struggling without their normal social supports, and encouragements.
I’m part of that age bracket that believes sitcoms haven’t been the same since Seinfeld ended. I mean, there are good sitcoms still, but it’s not the same as the glory days. But among the best episodes of Seinfeld is, of course, the Festivus episode, in which Frank Constanza’s made up holiday of Festivus is explored. Among the key features of Festivus observation are putting up the bare aluminum pole, “feats of strength”, and perhaps the most important part: the airing of grievances, when everyone gets to dump all their complaints against one another. In a year like 2020, it feels weird to have a moment when we are expected to express gratitude, and might feel more natural to set up the aluminum pole, wrestle each other, and commiserate and dump all our grievances. 2020 is just more suited for Festivus than Thanksgiving.
We could certainly go through some biblical passages that encourage God’s people to rejoice and give thanks, even in the midst of difficulties. Habakkuk ends with the prophet announcing that in spite of the catastrophe his people were experiencing, he would rejoice. The prophet Micah announces that though he’s down, he will rise, and will remain faithful, and look to God’s light. Lamentations contains a lengthy description of suffering and national disaster, but in the middle, the author announces boldly that there is hope because of God’s faithfulness and the possibility of a new day and dawning of new mercies from God. The Psalms are full of songs of defiant joy in tough circumstances. The New Testament epistles encourage the earliest Christians to hold on to hope and joy in the midst of trials and suffering. Unpacking all the examples would take an extremely long time.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians wrote “Rejoice in the Lord always”. And some days, I wish I had the means to speak directly to Paul. I might have some Festivus grievances for him. Rejoice always? Isn’t a pandemic a time to tear clothes, put on sack cloth and ashes? Isn’t lament a more appropriate response than rejoicing? We all know there are occasions when rejoicing feels inappropriate (and in reality, definitely is inappropriate)- a funeral for a child for instance. The same man who wrote “Rejoice in the Lord always” also wrote “Mourn with those who mourn”. Grief and mourning are appropriate. Rejoice always needs some unpacking. As Qohelet also affirms:
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Eccl. 3:1).
Thanksgiving is a time we set aside for gratitude. But COVID has pushed us into a season of frustration, fear, discomfort, loneliness, and all sorts of other feelings. So can we simultaneously have gratitude for the good, and frustration about the negative? Yes. So, if you have that tradition of using Thanksgiving to make a list, keep that up this year. Even if you’re tempted not to. Festivus is not that far off. Don’t pretend like the bad stuff isn’t there, or doesn’t affect you. Just remember that the bad things aren’t the only things. It’s hard to avoid the tunnel vision, but it’s a vital practice to keep that perspective. This will allow us to persevere in the difficult days as we hold out hope for the better days. Thanksgiving is different this year, but perhaps it’s actually more important than ever.