Thanksgiving: A Time for Gratitude and Joy

A 'dark winter'? Not if I can help it
November 17, 2020 Updated: November 17, 2020

Just before I began writing this article, I lit a candle. Not just any candle, but a scented candle.

The candle came in a gift basket given me on a trip a few months back to Williamsburg, Virginia. Though I’m not a fan of scented candles—I can’t remember the last time I fired one up—there it sits on the table next to my desk, lighting up the gloom of this misty November day, its flame a reminder of the power of light in the darkness.

For me, that candle represented hope in these calamitous times. I looked at it now and again as I typed, and took strength from its wavering flame. 

Saying Yes to Thanksgiving

In response to the rising numbers of victims of COVID-19, presidential candidate Joe Biden recently warned that we’re facing “a very dark winter.” Like some other prognosticators of doom—politicians, doctors, scientists, and worst of all, pundits—Biden believes we may need a national mask mandate and another lockdown of our businesses, restaurants, schools, and churches.

For months now, these same people have terrorized the American people, using fear to keep us at arm’s length from one another, to confine many of us in our homes, and to force us to stroll about the street looking like surgeons who’ve just escaped the operating room. This ordeal has taken an enormous toll on our spirits and mental health. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. I realize many people are afraid of catching this virus. The daily drumbeat of doom from the media, the contradictions and misinformation of the experts, and the unreliability of the numbers about the virus have created this climate of fear.

Only now some of our governors want us to cancel or curtail our Thanksgiving plans, and the Centers for Disease Control recommends that family and friends either hold their Thanksgiving festivities outdoors or else share the festivities virtually through screen-time.

This is where I call it quits.

In a few days, I’ll be pulling a turkey out of my oven.

And like that bird, I’m done.

It’s Time to Party

The holiday season is upon us. Thanksgiving has arrived, and the religious holidays of Hanukkah and Christmas will be here before we can say “Stop the Steal.” Then comes New Year’s, that time when we say goodbye to the old year and ring in the new. In this particular case, blowing a farewell kiss to 2020, this annus horribilis, this train wreck of a year, is alone cause enough to break out the champagne and party favors.

At any rate, beginning with Thanksgiving, I intend to pursue joy and delight these next few months even if I must crawl on my hands and knees to find them.

In just a few days, my children, their spouses, and my grandchildren will gather here in Virginia for a feast of turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie, and all the other fixings of this holiday. We will share raucous laughter, jokes, and memories, we will hold conversations ranging from personal affairs to politics, babies will cry and children will giggle. Manuel and William, both age 10, will spend half the day wrestling in the yard or in the living room, the three oldest granddaughters will perform another play they’ve concocted out of thin air, 3-year-old John Henry will want me to help him build a fort from blocks, and if he shows up, my friend John will play card games for hours with the older kids.

A New Tradition

Like most families, we have longstanding Thanksgiving traditions: certain foods and beverages for the meal, grace and sharing what we’re grateful for before taking our places at the table, place-cards made by the younger set with crayons and scissors.

This year I’m adding what I hope will become another tradition: singing.

In her article, “Civil Disobedience, Homestyle,” editor and writer Annie Holmquist describes opening the windows at her family’s home, seating herself at the piano, and playing hymns and patriotic songs with her family singing along. Her beautiful description of this get-together should bring comfort to even the most downhearted reader.

Holmquist’s account inspired me to replicate her celebration. Though none of my crew plays a musical instrument, we can belt out lyrics with the best of them. Before Thanksgiving Day, I’ll make copies of such songs as “God Bless America,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “America the Beautiful.” A 15-minute songfest will quicken the blood, liven up the appetite, and teach some tunes to the little ones. 

It won’t be the Von Trapp Family Singers, but it will sure as heck be therapeutic. 

Now for a broader take on this holiday.

One of a Kind

As a holiday, Thanksgiving is unique.

All of our other national holidays such as Independence Day, President’s Day, Labor Day, and Martin Luther King Day honor people and events that have shaped our nation. By celebrating those special occasions, we give homage to our past.

But only at Thanksgiving do we celebrate a virtue, in this case gratitude. Like the Pilgrims in 1621, when they gave thanks for their bountiful harvest, we set aside this day as an occasion for counting the blessings in our lives. We pause to remember the gifts, grand or small, bestowed on us: family, friends, good health, some unexpected turn of good fortune, the ordinary delights brought to us by each passing day. 

Thanksgiving offers us a wonderful lesson as well: If we wished, we could make every day Thanksgiving, a time to stop and remember to say thank you to life.

Sharing the Day

Not all of us have families or friends with whom we might share conversation, food, and drink on this day. Moreover, some among us may also feel uncomfortable gathering in person in this time of pandemic.

Whatever means of celebration we choose, we need to remember those who lack family and friends in this time of fellowship. Occasionally, a reader—it’s usually an older man—writes to say that he is alone and sometimes finds the articles on families painful to read. Perhaps he is a widower or estranged from his children, perhaps his close friends have died, but whatever the case he feels lonely and isolated. 

If you know such a person, I encourage you to extend an invitation to him to join you for the meal. If that plan doesn’t work, consider making up a plate of food and delivering it. Though I have a large family, I spend most of my time alone, and so do little cooking. A plate weighted down with Thanksgiving food tells a lonely soul he is appreciated and remembered. 

Teaching the Young

Thanksgiving also offers a wonderful teaching moment, an opportunity to revisit the Pilgrims and learn more about they contributed to our republic. 

Here are some points we might impart to the young.

Unlike those English adventurers who came to Virginia, many of those who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, fled England seeking religious freedom. They were separatists, alienated from the Church of England, and wanted the right to practice their faith as they saw fit. They are our earliest example of people seeking “freedom of religion” as guaranteed in our Constitution. In “Plymouth Rock Landed on Them,” an article well worth reading and sharing with your family, Christopher Caldwell makes the point that “they came for love of God, not for love of money.”

Equally important to remember is the Mayflower Compact, written aboard the ship before these colonists disembarked. 

Below is the beating heart of this short document outlining how they intended to govern themselves:

“Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

Here was the beginning of the American Republic.

This year brings us the 400th anniversary of the landing at Plymouth Rock. 

Let’s pause on this Thanksgiving Day to give thanks for all those Americans who have helped build this country, who wanted it to be a “shining city on a hill,” a glittering flame in the darkness.

The candle still burns. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.