food,  seasons,  the ethical life

Reflections on Thanksgiving

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Picking ApplesIt is Thanksgiving here in Canada, and I’m not entirely sure what to think. As a child in school the emphasis was on pilgrims and settlers and natives and pumpkins and turkeys. Now of course I know that the stories about the first European settlers aren’t exactly as simple and straightforward as they make it sounds to eight year olds and I’m not sure that time of history is something I want to celebrate. Should we celebrate the contact between the “old world” and the “new” when it resulted in such a loss of population for those of the new?

Thanksgiving as a celebration of the harvest does make sense to me, although the reality of it has only started to sink in the last few years, as I’ve taken to buying local food. The abundance of out-of-season grocery store food hides the seasons from us but buying locally makes me more aware again of the seasons. We have a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share. This means we pay ahead of time for a portion of our local farmer’s vegetables and what we get depends on how the harvest goes. Some years we have received heaps of vegetables, and we’ve canned and dried and frozen plenty. This year the boxes were less. It was too hot and dry, then insects caused problems. The harvest is pretty dismal.

The supermarket is available and we’ll buy other vegetables to make up for what we couldn’t get through our veggie box but I think seeing how the harvest vary year to year helps connect me with what Thanksgiving Day might have been about. In bad years it might have been a way of remembering that things could be worse, and an opportunity to feast while one can knowing one will be hungry later. Bad weather might have been a community problem and good weather a community blessing. There might have been a we’re-all-in-this together sort of thing happening in earlier more rural communities where the harvest would have meant a great deal.

I am thankful for so many things, and I think part of what makes me have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving is that I think real gratitude comes from honest about the bad things in life. The Hallmark version of Thanksgiving seems too much like a child trying to cut the black lines out of a comic strip only to find that without the black lines there is no picture. The darkness defines the light. The bad things define the good. No one is thankful for their heart beating unless they are aware that someday it won’t beat. The harvest is to be celebrated because it won’t always be this good.

I’m grateful for the joy we have even in a world where oppression and injustice are both still too common. Yet I don’t want the thankfulness to just be “because I am not personally oppressed and subject to injustice.”

A few years ago I was challenged by someone who asked to what extent it is that being thankful about something is in effect being thankful that you aren’t one of those less fortunate people who lack whatever it is. Does saying “I am thankful for my children” translate to being thankful that I am not one of those people who struggles with infertility? Or someone whose lost a child? Or someone for whom children are not a blessing? When I am thankful for the material wealth that allows me to live the way I do, am I saying I’m thankful I’m not one of those people who lacks it?

Some of my discomfort with Thanksgiving comes from my discomfort with material wealth. Too much of what we have, we possess through unethical means. Canadian mining companies are implicated in violence in Latin America where they are trying to push through mines that would poison the water and pollute the land. Factories in China have suicide nets to catch workers who try to jump from the roofs. Can I be thankful for this life I lead? The joy it brings me that comes at the cost to others?

I might be better off than some, but I am not better. I am not more deserving or more loved by God. I have no right to be pleased at the distance between myself and others. If I am thankful for the joy in life it should be thankfulness that joy does exist despite everything, and not a thankfulness that the joy is mine.

Yet despite my commenting about the Hallmark Thanksgiving, I do like eating turkey and spending an afternoon and evening with others. I love the fresh fall air, and the gold and red leaves and the cranberry-apple sauce that I’ll make with apples we picked. I’ll enjoy the day but I won’t completely forget the complexity involved in celebrating Thanksgiving and the gratitude I feel will be in part because of having had this opportunity to sit and write and write out some of the complexities. (And I’m grateful even though part of having the time has to do with my daughter’s unwillingness to sleep! I’m up adding to this post late in the night with a somewhat sleepy but not sleeping baby in my arms.)

And because I’ve already seen too many posts on facebook with people suggesting we shouldn’t eat turkey this holiday season, I leave you with this hilarious video clip (that I found on youtube).

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