There’s a lot of discussion in the US these days about our national Thanksgiving holiday. Human beings have a long and rich history of giving thanks to God (or gods) for a bountiful harvest, so no one nation holds a monopoly on the idea, or how it is celebrated. Here in America, what started as a religious event has, over time, become increasingly secular.
In fact, as a child, when I thought of Thanksgiving, I thought of parades, and feasts with fancy foods, and pilgrims wearing funny clothes. I didn’t think of people trying to be faithful to their God by escaping oppression and struggling to survive resettling in a very unfamiliar landscape, far from “home.”
I also didn’t think about the harmful impact these white-skinned settlers would have on the native population, either. A recent article about the impact of those pilgrims on the Wampanoag people has helped me understand that many Native Americans want nothing to do with our modern take on Thanksgiving. It brings up too many painful memories of what they have lost.
All this has got me thinking further about the two years I spent teaching English conversation and editing translations of doctoral dissertations at a Presbyterian college and seminary in Seoul, South Korea in the late 1980s. Last week I mentioned the different foods I experienced there. I also experienced different holidays. The Koreans have a traditional thanksgiving, or harvest festival, called Chuseok, which is also family focused and also a massive travel period, as people leave the big cities and return to their agrarian homelands to honor their ancestors and eat special foods.
But among Korean Presbyterian Christians (and perhaps other denominations; I don’t know), there’s a second Thanksgiving, specifically religious, that’s celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. You see, American missionaries brought their cultural Thanksgiving tradition to Korea along with their faith, and the Koreans wove the two together. So now Korean Christians have separate cultural and religious Thanksgivings. I took the photo above as people gathered outdoors for the religious Thanksgiving service at the seminary where I taught.
I wonder if two celebrations might be a good idea for us here in the US as well. Perhaps, that way, we could separate giving thanks to God for the fruits of the earth from figuring out how to address the historical baggage we carry. If we can step back from enshrining the holiday, we might be able to address its shortcomings.
What do you think? How might you separate the cultural and religious elements of Thanksgiving this year, at least in your heart? What would it mean to do that?