I’m blogging a little early this week, due to the American Thanksgiving holiday. For my non-US readers, a little explanation is probably in order. Thanksgiving was made an official holiday in the mid-1800s, but its origins go back to a harvest feast shared by early European settlers (called Pilgrims due to the religious convictions of some, who arrived on the ship Mayflower the previous year) and Native Americans in 1621. Today, the tale of that first feast has grown to mythic proportions, and the darker legacy of European colonization of North America is often glossed over.
Thanksgiving today is celebrated with family gatherings, a huge meal, parades, American football on the TV, and lots of stress in the kitchen. It is followed by “Black Friday,” the official big shopping day that opens the season of Christmas consumerism. Every year, crazed shoppers head out at 4 a.m. on Friday to line up at stores. It’s absurd. Anyhow…
While sorting some old family documents, I recently discovered that I have an ancestor who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, and likely participated in that first Thanksgiving. On one hand, I’ve had the “wow, that’s cool!” reaction, and suddenly felt more connected to my country’s history than I had felt before. Fair enough. But then, the realization hits me that this ancestor, and those who followed him likely participated in the genocide of the Native people who lived on this land for thousands of years, and the decimation of the land that accompanied it.
Most Native Americans today do not celebrate Thanksgiving. To them, it is understandably a day of mourning, and marks the beginning of the European colonization of their land. Occasionally, some sympathetic European-Americans also choose not to celebrate. But most of us do, even if we acknowledge the history. Gratitude is a good thing, and a holiday that has gratitude at its center arguably has a lot of potential for good, even while the past is remembered.
I cannot change the past. No matter how I wish it, I cannot undo centuries of my country’s history, nor send my ancestor back across the Atlantic. But I’ve come to realize what I can do, and what all of us who might not be indigenous to where we live can do. I can honor the spirit of those who walked this patch of Earth before me. I can work to create and restore an Earth-honoring spiritual tradition that takes inspiration from Native peoples, while not co-opting their cultural legacy. I can say once again that this Earth is sacred ground, and all of us, no matter our race or history, must learn to live in a sustainable way.
My family will adopt a new tradition this year, which I’ve adapted from an idea I heard from my UU minister. As we sit down to eat, each family member will find two hazelnuts on his or her plate. Hazelnuts symbolize wisdom in Celtic mythology, and on our table they symbolize the wisdom of gratitude. We will pass around a small bowl, and each person will put their hazelnuts into the bowl, naming two things for which they are thankful as they do. The bowl will sit at the center of the table, embodying the best spirit of the holiday. Later that day, we will take the nuts out to a nearby forested area, and leave them there as a symbol of gratitude for the Earth. We will return our gratitude to the wild, to the natural world, and in so doing, acknowledge our connection to it. We will also remember those who lived here before us, and take a small step toward healing the legacy of my ancestor.
To my US readers, Happy Thanksgiving.
To all, blessings and peace.
Photo Credit: photograph of hazelnuts by flickr use Lamees (L.Y.S.) at http://www.creativecommons.org/