Thanksgiving and Gratitude
October 8, 2023
Rev. Rita Capezzi—Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga
It’s the eve of your Thanksgiving Day. For me, it is the eve of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, still Columbus Day for some Americans. You have your own traditions and stories about thanksgiving, inspired by colonization and settlement. About Martin Frobisher in 1579, and about Samuel de Champlain in 1604. About Protestants calling upon provincial leaders to declare a day of thanks in 1859. And other times and dates, too, after wars and after consolidation of governmental powers, in Aprils and Novembers past. You have your own traditions and stories, and your holiday is bound up as well with the myths and traditions of American Thanksgiving—with the benighted stories of Indians saving Pilgrims. And so, your thanksgiving is bound up also with the realities of American Thanksgiving—those generous Wampanoag slaughtered a year later by the same English Pilgrims, Abraham Lincoln declaring thanksgiving on October 3 following the battles at Gettysburg, less than a year after he had affirmed a military sentence condemning 38 Dakota men to death by hanging for actions related to the US-Dakota War in 1862.
The celebration of Thanksgiving Day in both countries has a vexed history. But giving thanks for the harvest, giving thanks for the bounty of the earth and the goodness humans enjoy because of it. Giving thanks for our families and friends and loved ones, there is nothing vexed or contentious about this. The First Nations people of this region, the Indigenous peoples of Minnesota and New York, peoples of all ethnicities and nationalities and religions and no religion at all give thanks for the bounty of earth and the love of family. We here are no different, we are beautifully the same, even as we acknowledge that national celebrations carry grief and sorrow as well as joy. And even in the sanctity of our personal lives, all is not sweetness and light. Celebration brings memory, and some memories—of losses, breakages, conflicts—these persist.
And so we carve out a time today, on this glorious morning, deliberately and purposefully, to celebrate our community—in all its complexity—for the special place it holds in our lives. A place to practice our faith, to practice what we say is important to us, to proclaim what is important to us. Come, let us celebrate together.
When I was a girl, my family still under the influence of Christianity and Catholicism, we said for many years the following grace before dinner: “Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive though thy bounty and Christ the Lord. Amen.” I still know that prayer by heart. My parents would have to prompt my sister and me to remember whose turn it was to say the words. We raced through that prayer more often than not, blurring the words together to get on to the food. It didn’t mean much, as I did not believe, even then, in a supernatural god needing my thanks and my worshipful attendance. And I knew full well who put the food on the table—my over-worked father, always tired and often irritable; my cost-conscious and perpetually stressed mother who managed always to stretch, but just barely, the paycheck beyond spaghetti and elbow macaroni to include a pork or beef roast once a week. I knew full well it was the work of their hands and heads, their care for their family, that I should be thanking. God seemed to have very little to do with it. But that was not what the prayer said.
And I confess that I had to learn gratitude, real gratitude, for what I received directly and especially for what I received indirectly. Directly, for the teachers who helped me see that I could be and do more than my lot would seem to prescribe, for the colleagues who helped to polish me socially and culturally, and yes, even for my distracted and frightened parents who had time for little else than scraping by, parents who encouraged me and kept all of us free of a toxic extended family. This gratitude came early and easily. It’s the indirect that I had to be hit over the head with: the privilege of white skin and education; of good health and proper healthcare and access to it; of activists and writers and speakers who taught me what is worth really caring about—equality, liberation, justice, compassion; of scientists and researches who toil to create beneficial knowledge that cures disease and mitigates some of the harms we humans have done to earth. And the earth itself, the universe really, whose powers and forces far beyond me or you or any collective of human beings conspired in ways known and often still mysterious, to make life itself possible on this planet, that created generations upon generations of beings whose existence led to me, to you, to all of us here today. I have been given so much, so much that I did not work for. I have more than enough. How can I not be grateful, what kind of person would I be to sneer in the face of this beautiful mystery? For the life I live, for the life we share, I give thanks each day and with a lot less prompting. May gratitude and thanksgiving guide your lives as well.
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