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Thanksgiving is more than an American holiday

Thanksgiving is an annual holiday in the United States that brings together family and friends in a celebration of gratitude for the many blessings received. Sarah-Leah Pimentel argues that this holiday has a global dimension and adds that it provides an opportunity to reflect on the things for which we are grateful.

Thanksgiving is my favourite American holiday.

Sadly, the world seems to inherit the worst of American culture. We get Black Friday shopping mania and Halloween dress-up parties. I wish we had borrowed Thanksgiving instead. It is a day for family, food, reflection, and the celebration of the human spirit (accompanied by a dose of American football, so I’m told).

The history of Thanksgiving goes back to the first Pilgrims who arrived in the United States in the early 1600s. The feast was a celebration of gratitude for the harvest and God’s many blessings throughout the year.

Over the centuries, it has lost some of its religious roots and more recently, there is a growing awareness that the holiday comes with a history of violence against America’s first nations. Nevertheless, it remains the quintessential American holiday that brings families together. It offers an opportunity to reflect on the year and express gratitude for the many good things that have happened.

We all need Thanksgiving this year

I am not American, but I enjoy entering into the spirit of this season with my American friends. This year, more than ever, we need a Thanksgiving. The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a shadow over this year, bringing with it economic meltdowns, political tension, unemployment, depression, isolation, sickness, and loss. We may feel that there is not much to be thankful for.

After I’d spent a few minutes complaining about some insignificant thing to a friend earlier this week, she pointed out that “at least you are alive.” I ignored her and continued with my litany of complaints. A few minutes later, she again interrupted me and reminded me that “at least you have your health.”

It took a while to sink in. This year has been so filled with anxiety, frustration, fear, and worry that we are more likely to focus on negative emotions and on the things that have gone wrong, than on what has been good. It is hard for us to remember that in fact, we already have the most important thing: we are alive. That alone offers countless opportunities to change our story (and our attitude).

It is hard for us to remember that in fact, we already have the most important thing: we are alive.

This is why Thanksgiving is so important this year and I’d make a case for adopting the holiday here in South Africa. It is an opportunity to pause and give thanks for the goodness that outshines the darkness.

Gratitude is a prayer

This Thanksgiving I am grateful that I have a job. At the beginning of the year, there was not enough parking for all the workers in the office park where we have our business. Now, my car is one of a handful of cars in the parking lot. As I walk up to the office, half the businesses are closed — many of them permanently — with “To Let” signs in the windows. It gives me a real sense of how many people have lost their livelihoods this year. I pray for them and I count my blessings. This time last year, I was the one who had just been retrenched. I know what it is to face an uncertain future and how hard it is to find a new job.

I am thankful for the ability to work from home. I have had my parents living with me and was constantly aware (as the sole shopper and errand runner) that if one of my parents got the virus, it would have been me who brought it home. I was fortunate in that I could limit my time in public spaces. I cannot imagine the anxiety of having to travel on public transport to go to work, or working in a crowded setting all day, and know that I could bring the virus home. I pray for all those who must do that everyday to provide for their families.

I am thankful that I had my parents living with me this year. I am a hermit by nature and nothing gives me more joy than my own company. There were days we came close to killing one another, but at least I knew they were safe. It would have been terrible if they were still living 1,600 km away and I had no way of getting to them quickly if there had been an emergency with the airports closed.

Looking back on this year, I think of those who have died (from COVID-19 and other illnesses) and I am grateful for the role they played in my life. Some were members of my parish community who made me welcome when I first arrived in Cape Town. One was a neighbour who always had a smile and a kind word. Others were the parents of childhood friends, who always welcomed me into their homes. Some were entertainers and performers, who allowed me to forget my own troubles for a while and sometimes gave me something to think about. Each of them is a thread in the tapestry of my life. I pray they have found eternal peace.

I think of those who have died and I am grateful for the role they played in my life.

I am grateful for my health, but also thankful for the minor health scare earlier this year. Fortunately, a small procedure and some medicine, fixed it easily enough, but it drew my attention to my general health. I began to eat better, sleep more, and take longer walks. That helped to overcome some of the despondency that started to set in the middle of the long lockdown.

There are many other things I am grateful for this year. But I might not even have been aware of them if I did not pause for a few minutes to think about them. It became an opportunity for prayer and for sharing. It is also the heart of the Christian life, to pause daily and give God thanks for his many gifts.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday. But perhaps there should be a Thanksgiving in each of our lives. Thanksgiving is more than a holiday. It is an attitude that offers us a more hopeful and grateful way to encounter the world and the events of our own lives.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.