Thanksgiving is a holiday with religious origins, but is arguably the most important secular holiday in America, more so even than Independence Day. The Thanksgiving feast is a celebration of the bountiful harvest, but also a preparation for the dark and lean times ahead. In my youth we decorated the classroom with cut-outs of cornucopias, pumpkins, leaves, ears of corn, and of course hand-turkeys. With the increasingly premature encroachment of the “Holiday Season” these warm and familiar earth-toned images in gold and orange and brown are increasingly hard to find.
Perhaps the symbols of Thanksgiving today are the shopping cart and the credit card scanner, even though Thanksgiving is and ought to be the pinnacle and the consummation of the fall season, not a mere prelude to some secular celebration of a meteorological phenomenon with songs about snowmen and sleigh bells. Most of the world celebrates Christmas in climates where it rarely snows and surely people in the Southern Hemisphere must find our obsession with Currier and Ives snowscapes rather comical.
Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving is a purely American holiday with plenty of secular traditions to savor. The big rivalry games in college football are always on the weekend after Thanksgiving, saving the best for last. Fall has its own beauty which we can appreciate without rushing to festoon the world in plastic mistletoe and synthetic garlands with artificial “flocking.” Fall is a time for freshly-pressed apple cider beside the fireplace, for thinking deep thoughts, and for taking stock of our lives. Fall is a time of stripping away the unessential things.
Leaves fall to the ground leaving the bare skeletons of trees. If we think of the wonders of nature as a great gothic cathedral, the brilliant colors of fall are the stained glass. Every tree is a window to the permanent things of the soul, but in this mortal realm, the vision is only fleeting. The fiery flash of color comes and goes. The Feast of All Saints celebrates the faithful departed who enjoy this brilliant vision for all of eternity. Let us linger amidst the long shadows of their headstones and remember them—and be thankful for the world they have entrusted to our care.
The coming celebration of Advent is a time of desolation. Like the children of Israel wandering in the desert, we await the Promised Land and the arrival of the anointed one who will rule in justice and majesty. Like the approaching winter, the manna which comes from Heaven is described in the Book of Exodus as being, “fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.” Instead of the feverish acquiring of things in a contrived and fabricated winter wonderland, Advent should be a time of expectation, but also of continuing thankfulness for what we have. Our journey through the wilderness is a joyful one because of the Lord’s providence.