Holidays

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and I’ve given a fair bit of thought as to why that is so. After all, authorities tell us that real Christians live in and out of Easter, while churches as they are have converged entirely with the culture in making Christmas #1. Worse still, by the measure of faith, Thanksgiving is the one religious holiday in the United States that gets its warrant from state instead of church.

Doubtless, memories–especially childhood memories–have a lot to say on this front, but my recollections of Christmas are hardly so bad as to drop it below Thanksgiving. Ours was a family richer in respectability than in coin, but there were always enough presents beneath the tree to meet minimum standards. I suspect it was the enormous weight of expectations, built up over the long march through four weeks of ever colder and darker days, that crushed poor Christmas. Actual experience could hardly measure up to the determined cheer of the frantic preparations. All the hors d’oeuvres–the school party, the church pageant with an orange and chocolates delivered to each Sunday Schooler in attendance, the gathering of paternal clan here and maternal clan there–would suddenly give over to a church service about Baby Jesus that came off so different a menu as not to constitute a main course at all. And for dessert? Leftovers, and tossing out the tree.

Thanksgiving, by contrast, was a stealth holiday, the start of a two-day reprieve after three months of unbroken school. I liked it that, even in Michigan, you could still play outside on the day. I liked it that football, the game at hand, gave some privilege to people big and slow, like me. I especially liked it that on this one day I could watch professional football–yea, even the home-state Detroit Lions–which otherwise fell beneath the prohibitions against Sunday television-viewing in our resolutely sabbatarian home. Plus, the day had ritual magic in placing turkey and cranberry sauce–a unique blend of smell, taste, and color–on the table for their annual visit. For humor we had the competition of mashed-potatoes-and-gravy inhaling by the boy cousins, beneath the disgusted looks of secretly delighted mothers.

That was then; why still Thanksgiving now? Why, especially when it seems that so many aren’t actually giving thanks at all but discussing the auguries for the most important shopping season of the year? Thanksgiving’s stealth-like quality is more important than ever–the chance to savor a day in its own right while everyone else is fixated on the four-week future. And to savor not just a day, but a day off. My first semester of full-time teaching involved preparing three lecture courses from scratch, after intense months of revising and producing (with pre-word-processing technology) a 400+ page dissertation. I have never been so tired in my life as I was that November, nor more delighted to make sage stuffing Thanksgiving eve. An evening and a morning and then another afternoon given over to full relaxation with prep-guilt gone: such joy is never forgotten.

Celebrating such a peace, of course, animated the original harvest-home festivals of the New England settlers who bequeathed the holiday to the nation. In their farming cycle, November really did mark the end of the year, and so with “all . . . safely gathered in/ere the winter storms begin,” they could genuinely, with heart as well as hand, put down their labors, give thanks to God for the fruits thereof, and celebrate together the completion of another long round through weal and woe and weather of every sort. It is difficult, in a wireless (and therefore entirely tied-up) society, ever to get such a moment of release. Stealthy, settled-down Thanksgiving can lend it, if we care.

My childhood Sundays were supposed to be calibrated to the cycle of the Heidelberg Catechism, so it was only later that I discovered the church year as many Christian communions observe it. With it I discovered too that Thanksgiving weekend usually coincides with either the last or the first Sunday of the liturgical round, with another conclusion or a new beginning. At first I jealously guarded Thanksgiving–plain American, Pilgrims and football–against such high-church encroachments. But then I thought of what a good fit they made. Saluting Christ as king or anticipating Christ as the king coming again, one is delivered for the moment from the strife of doing, to an appreciation of the Doer who has finished the important work and oversees the labors we offer up in our own time.

These coinciding markers can help one lean against the prevailing winds. Early Advent sermons on repentance and the coming judgment permit some distance from the forced joys of Christmas preparations. Golfing in the lowering twilight of a late November day, one can savor the delight not only of liberating Mother Nature of another nine holes but of catching the low-slanting sun suddenly turning a bare willow to glowing yellow against a brown-gray afternoon. Another drive in the thicket? Right where you find it, red berries turn up on bare twigs over their fallen leaves. No beauty is more precious than the spare sort where none was supposed to be found.

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This issue of Perspectives features three articles that do some leaning of their own against the prevailing winds of North American religion. John Suk asks whether it’s biblical to want to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Peter Bush argues that it’s an unbiblical surrender to market forces to pay pastors a salary. And Hendrik Hart explores the limits to biblical authority itself. All three writers are from Canada, a nation that celebrated Thanksgiving a whole month ago. Timing might just be everything. Whether you agree with their answers or not, we are sure you will find their questions worthy. Let us hear proposals of your own.

James Bratt is co-editor of Perspectives and teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.