By Corinne Winter
It’s the end of November and we are surrounded by the invitation to turn our attention to Christmas. It seems that each weekend brings multiple opportunities to attend Christmas events: concerts, festivals, celebrations in the style of various historical times or of diverse cultures. They sound so inviting, and at the same time, I find myself wishing they were scheduled for the end of December and the first week of January. That would give us time to pay attention to Thanksgiving and to Advent.
When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was a big deal. Even if only my parents, siblings and I were going to have dinner, we took out the delicate china that had belonged to my grandmother. We climbed up to top cupboards to retrieve serving dishes that we would need to wash since it had been months since their last appearance on the table. We had Thanksgiving decorations: a large cornucopia that we filled with real fruits and nuts, paper turkeys and pilgrims that went up on the walls. The Christmas tree was nowhere in sight; it would not appear indoors until Dec. 23.
These may sound like the nostalgic ramblings of a senior citizen, and they are, to some extent. However, they also call attention to the important themes that can be crowded out of our lives if we slide from Halloween into Christmas without paying attention to the celebrations that ought to come in between the two.
While Thanksgiving Day is a civic holiday established by President Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, it calls us to an attitude that is essential to Christian spiritual life: gratitude. Indeed, the sacrament that is described as the “source and summit” of the church’s life is named Eucharist, a term that comes from a Greek word for thanksgiving. At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we are invited to give thanks to God and we respond by declaring that it is “right and just” to do so. We are then reminded of the reasons why we should give constant thanks and praise: God’s goodness as creator, the gift of life and the invitation to share in God’s own life.
Celebrating a day of thanksgiving gives us an opportunity and a reminder to make gratitude to God part of the rhythm of our lives. Today’s life is marked by so many reminders of the needs of our world, so many reasons to lament. It seems to me that stopping to recall the gifts God gives us might even be a survival strategy. When I feel overwhelmed by the woes of the world, I often find strength by looking at the good things in my life: at family and friends, at the joy I have found in teaching, and in my church. None of these is perfect, but I am grateful for the goodness I have been privileged to see.
Recognizing the blessings of my life also reminds me that every gift is also a debt. The gifts I am given are not to be hoarded but to be shared. Thanksgiving urges us to generosity. Many church and civil groups put that conviction into action at Thanksgiving by making particular efforts to meet the needs of those around us. That too is something to celebrate; it also calls us to address injustices that leave people in need.
This year the first Sunday of Advent comes immediately after Thanksgiving. Marking the beginning of a new liturgical year, the season of Advent calls us to find hope within the darkness. Readings from the prophets, the epistles and Gospels contain exhortations to overcome temptations to despair by looking at life through the eyes of faith. We are reminded of God’s promises and faithful love. We are also reminded of our need for God. The darkness exists and the only light that can overcome the darkness of sin is that of God’s saving love. The many hours of darkness can work their way into our prayer lives as we long for light. They can urge us to seek ways to carry the light of justice. In Catholic and many other Christian churches and homes the lighting of candles on an Advent wreath serves as one symbol of the light of hope. Letting the small but powerful light of the candles shine without being overpowered by hundreds of Christmas lights may help us focus on the kind of light we need.
The world has changed a great deal even in the decades since my youth. I must admit that our Christmas decorations go up about halfway through Advent. Yet, it seems to me that the messages of Thanksgiving and of Advent remain relevant. We may need to find new ways to pay attention to them, but I hope we will do so.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)