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Complicated Thanksgiving

My list of good things will be different this year.

For a Midwest farm child, Thanksgiving Day, U.S. style, was a favorite time of year. Whether the bins of corn and canning jars were full or not, there was a pause from the long, all-hands-on-deck work days and family anxiety – until winter storms presented new threats. Familiar tales of pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, Little House on the Prairie books, making lists of things for which I was thankful, and drawing turkeys fostered feelings of comfort with my place in the world. At church the service was lighter on how sinful I was and happier as we celebrated God’s blessings on hard farm work, with compassion for those left behind by storms or drought. It all fit with the capitalistic ethic and well-ordered Reformed way of life I was expected to absorb. When I moved to Alberta, Thanksgiving Day dinners on a family farm in Neerlandia refreshed those cultural roots.

Cultural Myths Exposed

What happens when life-long learning pokes big holes in well-loved traditions? Through visits to museums in Minnesota, my birth home, and reading Indigenous history books, I have learned the truth about how immigrant farms contributed to pushing Indigenous people further north and west. That replaces the romantic line or two in pilgrim stories about Indigenous people sharing corn seeds and know-how to help newcomers survive. I find myself lamenting that many of the good things for which I want to give thanks are also evidence of how much my culture promoted ways of life that harmed Indigenous people and Blacks, to my advantage. The complicity goes well beyond being silent bystanders.

I’m now alert to how romanticized pioneer stories for girls were promoted to reinforce expectations of a limited role for women as God-ordained. Among the many books about Christianity and women I have read over the years, recent books by Kristin Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr have made me think hard and weep over the ways I have propped up instead of challenging a culture that hurts women – harms I have also endured. I agree when Barr says it is time to end the barriers embedded in evangelical church culture and set women free.

Many of the cultural myths that shaped my childhood and are symbolized in the traditions of Thanksgiving Day are manufactured lies to shore up a way of life that harms others and covers it up.

Gratitude is Different

Knowing more makes for a complicated Thanksgiving Day. I can’t go back to discredited myths, but it is almost impossible to discard the cultural baggage and extract the central core of gratitude that remains central to a Christian posture toward the world. To help me sort through the tangle of cultural lies and core values, I returned to Margaret Visser’s tome on gratitude, The Gift of Thanks. After a journey through the cultural history of saying thank you, gift-giving and religious practices, she probes deeper to show that genuine gratitude includes respect and recognition of the other, freedom, grace and mutual acceptance as equals. Already in 2008 she asserted that gratitude should lead to greater respect for creation itself and care of the environment.

I don’t know yet what my Thanksgiving Day 2021 will look like, but I know it will need to include truth-telling, repentance and thanks for the voices who expose harmful cultural myths. My list of good things will be different – and I think God will be pleased.


Books mentioned here
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin DuMez (2020)
The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr (2021)
The Gift of Thanks: The Roots, Persistence, and Paradoxical Meanings of a Social Ritual by Margaret Visser (2008.)

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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