Giving thanks on Thanksgiving Day

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? You may have already been asked that question this season. You may even be the one asking. It is not unusual to go around the dinner table as friends and family sit across from each other on Thanksgiving Day with plates piled high with roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie and other delicious edibles, sharing our thoughts of thankfulness with each other or privately within our hearts.

CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec

The question about thankfulness takes me back years ago to my very first Thanksgiving in the United States. I was a seminarian studying for the Green Bay Diocese at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago. There was this buzz on campus beginning in the first week of November that intensified as the month progressed. At first, I thought this holiday was purely religious and was impressed that even the secular media were caught up in the frenzy. Moreover, who else but God alone was truly worthy of thanksgiving as to have a day set aside solely for this purpose, I surmised. Hence, it was a bit shocking to me to realize that Thanksgiving, as it is celebrated in the U.S., is more of a secular rather than a religious feast.

You see, in southeastern Nigeria, where I was born, Thanksgiving has a particularly religious and celebratory connotation. It is what you do after your daughter or son has graduated from college or after recovering from surgery or illness. You “do” a thanksgiving after your wife or daughter-in-law has given birth to a baby, and if it is a set of twins or triplets, it will be a really big thanksgiving celebration.

You also celebrate a thanksgiving on the first anniversary of the death of a loved one; a thanksgiving for having weathered the emotional and psychological storm of the one-year mourning period. You also offer a thanksgiving for surviving a particularly bad road or farm accident with life and limb intact. Doing well in your business or your kids passing an examination with flying colors are all occasions for a “thanksgiving.” It is not unusual for parents to have a thanksgiving after their daughter or son gets married. Any number of occasions in life is a reason for a thanksgiving and to celebrate with friends and relatives afterward.

For this Nigerian thanksgiving, the family simply contacts the parish to have a Mass celebrated on a chosen Sunday. They invite friends and relatives, even those who do not often go to church, to attend. The family comes to church that Sunday with gifts they will present during the offertory along with the bread and wine. Oftentimes, these gifts are farm produce from their garden, such as fruits and vegetables. Bags of rice, beans, other food items and even bars of soap are common depending on the family’s resources.

Occasionally, you may see farm animals — from chickens, sheep, rams and goats, to cows in some rare cases — dragged to church for thanksgiving. When a cow is presented as part of the offering, it is not brought into the church, but rather tied up someplace on the parish property until the end of Mass. During the Offertory, the family celebrating a thanksgiving will be invited to come forward for a blessing. They all come to the sanctuary steps accompanied by friends and neighbors bearing their gifts, singing and dancing. There they are received by the priest, who prays over them and gives them a blessing.

After Mass, all the invited guests and neighbors will retire to the family home to party. This part, for some people, is the real thanksgiving. The food and drink consumed at this part of the celebration is provided by the family with some contributions by relatives as they arrive. There is no set date for this thanksgiving. It can take place any Sunday that the family, in consultation with the pastor, decides. I have fond memories of these thanksgiving celebrations.

I also have grown to love and look forward to the Thanksgiving celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. I love the happy and joyful buzz that surrounds it. Its emphasis on family, community, sharing, generosity, love of neighbor and the less fortunate has always fascinated and impressed me. Although for many Americans, it is not celebrated as a strictly religious observance, it is nonetheless, a beautiful national holiday and one of those essential and formative ingredients of American culture.

For us as Catholics, though, we know that our thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day and every day, begins at the altar with the Eucharist, which indeed means “thanksgiving.” In the Eucharist and through the offering of the holy sacrifice of the Mass, we thank God for the beauty of creation, for the grace of redemption in Christ, and for the gift of sanctification in the Holy Spirit.

So what are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? I am thankful for the privilege of serving our community as a priest and for celebrating the Eucharist each day with them and for them. I am thankful for our many faith-filled, generous, thoughtful, loving, engaged and committed parishioners. I am thankful for the hopeful future that awaits us as a community of faith as we seek to grow as missionary disciples. Lastly, I am thankful for a beautiful new rectory that I get to be the first priest to live in!

“O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” (Ps. 136:1)

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Fr. Amadi is administrator of St. Mary Parish in Algoma.