The hol­i­day that brings us to­gether

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) - - RELIGION - RABBI MARC GELL­MAN God Squad Send ALL QUES­TIONS AND COM­MENTS to The God Squad via email at god­squadques­tion@aol.com. Rabbi Gell­man is the au­thor of sev­eral books, in­clud­ing “Re­li­gion for Dum­mies,” co-writ­ten with Fr. Tom Hart­man.

This year I am tak­ing two weeks to help us all get ready for Thanks­giv­ing. Thanks­giv­ing is not my fa­vorite hol­i­day (that would be Passover), but it is my fa­vorite hol­i­day that we can all cel­e­brate to­gether as Amer­i­cans. Thanks­giv­ing is one of the most sig­nif­i­cant rit­u­als that helps make us all Amer­i­cans.

Re­li­gious rit­u­als bind us to the com­mu­nity of be­liev­ers in our faith. Sec­u­lar rit­u­als bind us to the cit­i­zens of our na­tion. We all know the names and na­tures of the rit­u­als of our faith, but we do not, I be­lieve, suf­fi­ciently un­der­stand the names and na­tures of our sec­u­lar Amer­i­can rit­u­als. There are not many Amer­i­can rit­u­als left, and Thanks­giv­ing is the best of them.

Vet­er­ans Day has passed. Pres­i­dent’s Day and Colum­bus Day are un­der at­tack and sink­ing fast. New Year’s Day is noth­ing but hang­overs and foot­ball. In­de­pen­dence Day is suf­fer­ing from a ban on fire­works dis­plays in many places where the ex­pense or the fear of fires have ex­tin­guished the boomers. Mother’s Day has sur­vived ... be­cause we are talk­ing about moth­ers here! How­ever, Fa­ther’s Day is ba­si­cally gone. Hal­loween has not only sur­vived but is thriv­ing (but at its root, Hal­loween is re­ally the rem­nant of the Catholic holy day, All Hal­lows’ Eve, which is the night be­fore All Saints’ Day). Valen­tine’s Day is on life sup­port from the flower and candy lobby, but it also is a sec­u­lar­ized re­li­gious hol­i­day. And of course, Christ­mas en­dures, but thanks to Santa and twinkly trees and chest­nuts roast­ing on an open fire, has shed much of its deep re­li­gious im­por­tance in re­turn for sec­u­lar ac­cep­tance. I am ob­vi­ously not a Chris­tian, but I am on the side of ev­ery Chris­tian who still strug­gles to keep the Christ in Christ­mas.

Alone among all Amer­ica’s sec­u­lar holy days sits Thanks­giv­ing, and I, for one, am not go­ing to let it fade away into some des­ic­cated form like the turkey/ stuff­ing/mashed potato/ cran­berry po’ boy I ate while vis­it­ing our son Max in New Or­leans! Thanks­giv­ing is more than that po’ boy. Thanks­giv­ing is the best of us. We are a frac­tured and griev­ing na­tion in these times, but Thanks­giv­ing still unites us and forms us into a sin­gle peo­ple. The flag and the pledge are im­por­tant. But in the face of our pluribus, Thanks­giv­ing is truly our unum.

So let me im­plore you to keep the soul of Thanks­giv­ing alive at your fam­ily ta­ble. The first part of this rit­ual is not the pre­sen­ta­tion of the turkey (most of us do not go in for the Nor­man Rock­well full bird on a plate pre­sen­ta­tion of the turkey any­way. We hack that sucker up in the kitchen and put the pieces and slices on a plat­ter.) No, the first part of any spir­i­tu­ally au­then­tic Thanks­giv­ing din­ner ought to be the rit­ual of go­ing around the ta­ble and shar­ing some­thing we are thank­ful for, or giv­ing a gift of a poem or a hymn (my fa­vorites are in­cluded be­low). Af­ter thanks is given, the meal can be­gin. What I have in mind for the be­gin­ning of the Thanks­giv­ing rit­ual is al­ready a part of the fam­ily tra­di­tions of L from Ap­ple­ton in my home state of Wis­con­sin. She wrote to me in re­sponse to my col­umn about how to teach chil­dren about prayers:

“Thank you so much for reprint­ing these great de­scrip­tors of prayer. I usu­ally pro­vide each year some short of­fer­ing at Thanks­giv­ing to my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to get the fo­cus off of food and onto God, from whom all bless­ings flow. Your four kinds of prayer will be my of­fer­ing this year. It is es­pe­cially good for be­liev­ing and non­be­liev­ing fam­ily mem­bers, as we re­mem­ber the real rea­son for this spe­cial Amer­i­can hol­i­day. Thanks again and have a won­der­ful Thanks­giv­ing.”

Why is it that the peo­ple who al­ready know the soul of Thanks­giv­ing are the ones who keep think­ing up new ways to make it shine?

And ... if you are will­ing to risk hymn singing, here is my run away choice. You know the tune:

“Bless this house, O Lord we pray,

Make it safe by night and day;

Bless these walls, so firm and stout,

Keep­ing want and trou­ble out.

Bless the roof and chim­neys tall, Let Thy peace lie over all; Bless this door, that it may prove, Ever open to joy and love. Bless these win­dows shining bright,

Let­ting in God’s hean’nly light;

Bless the hearth a blaz­ing there,

With smoke as­cend­ing like a prayer.

Bless the folk who dwell within,

Keep them pure and free from sin;

Bless us all that we may be fit, O Lord, To dwell with Thee, Bless us all that one day we may dwell,

O Lord, with Thee.”

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