Celebrating Thanksgiving, if I'm right, is something you feel you more have to do vs. something you want to do, i.e., it may not be something you would celebrate regardless of where you were in the world, regardless if you were alone or not. It's just something you do because that's what the country and everybody else you know does, you kind of just go along with it.
This is one of the primary reasons you and many others get uptight or worse about this particular holiday (and the others during this time of year), as well as about the tangential observances you would not particularly choose for on any given day of the week: forced time with family, small talk, over indulgence in food and drink (particularly meat), watching TV, etc.
It's a day, for the most part, where mindfulness is forsaken (though the spirit of the tradition is certainly not rooted in mindlessness) and if that's something important to you, Thanksgiving and the other seasonal holidays can be relatively traumatizing events to participate in.
If we think the holidays are something to "get through," undertaken, by in large, for the benefit of not upsetting others or cultural custom, we may want to consider how to bring greater awake consciousness to this time of the year.
Let's take a look at Thanksgiving.
Understand the Origins of Thanksgiving
Do we know the origins of Thanksgiving? Who started this tradition? Why?
Most of us don't, or might make a casual reference to a friendly feast between the English Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians celebrating the 1621 fall harvest in Plymouth, MA, and their newly formed alliance—an alliance which would ultimately degrade into King Philip's War, one of the most deadly in America's history.
Not really understanding where the holiday originates from and some of the dubious aspects that surround it, doesn't stop most Americans from participating in the day whole heartedly, with a certain sense of patriotic pride. Step 1 towards a more mindful Thanksgiving is confidently knowing where the tradition comes from and then making a conscious choice if you want to celebrate it, and in what way.
Pre-grocery stores and technological advancements in agriculture, our ancestors across the world lived off the land. Periods of draught would have catastrophic consequences for you and your family, in terms of food availability and your ability to survive. You were dependent on Mother Nature—Her fluctuating seasons and temperaments, having direct impact on your livelihood, were largely out of your control.
It makes sense then, if after a particularly bountiful harvest or other fortunate natural event, you stopped to gave thanks to this force in a ceremonial manner. It equally makes sense why many ancient societies, going back to ancient Egypt, worshipped the natural elements in native religions, especially the Sun. This is the primary philosophical root of Thanksgiving: humbling yourself, recognizing your place in the natural order, and giving thanks to that which gives you life.
This is the primary philosophical root of Thanksgiving: humbling yourself, recognizing your place in the natural order, and giving thanks to that which gives you life.
Some variation of this (particularly solemn prayer and fasting) was certainly a practice of the Pilgrims, to whom Thanksgiving in the United States is sociologically traced. The Pilgrims were a group of Christian Puritans from England who broke away from the Church of England during the 16th century Reformation, being in strong disagreement with the church's new structuring and doctrines, which they felt strayed from the original teachings of Jesus Christ. So much so, they left England for more religiously liberal Holland and later on, hearing about the promise of the New World, journeyed from Holland in 1620 via the famous Mayflower voyage, to the tip of Cape Cod, to what is now known as Provincetown Harbor, Massachusetts.
The Pilgrims arrived in December and found they were not prepared for a northeastern winter, where temperatures average around 25 degrees Fahrenheit and snowfall can exceed eight feet. 45 out of the 102 souls who were aboard the Mayflower were killed due to scurvy, pneumonia, and lack of suitable shelter to fend off the cold.
Being shocked from this ordeal and realizing help was needed if they were to survive in this new environment, the Pilgrims sought the help of the Wampanoag people, native inhabitants of the area for many thousands of years. It is commonly held that a Wampanoag named Squanto—who, coincidentally, had some years earlier traveled to London with an English explorer, picked up the English language and converted to Christianity—offered great assistance to the Pilgrims, teaching them how to build wigwams, cultivate corn and other essential crops, and for some time, acted as official liaison between the two peoples.
Following a successful fall harvest due to the techniques the Pilgrims learned, is where we get the depiction of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag cordially celebrating and giving thanks together during a dinner feast, and is the event where most people in the United States trace the celebration of Thanksgiving to.
Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) has been observing a National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, MA at noon on Thanksgiving Day because many Native Americans from that area have a much different understanding and recollection of history.
They remember a plague, caused by their dealings with the Europeans in the years before the Pilgrim's arrival, that killed up to 90% of the Wamapanoags, given members did not have the immunity to fight off European infectious disease. They remember Pilgrims, considering themselves to be the "elect of God," who viewed natives as heathens, savages, and associates of the devil. They remember the first Thanksgiving dinner being more about a negotiation for Pilgrim land rights, than a celebration of togetherness. Most of all, they remember King Philip's War from 1675-1678, which had the same peoples just 50 years prior sitting at the first Thanksgiving dinner in harmony, embroiled in what is considered to be one of the deadliest conflicts in American history, which left only 400 members of the Wampanoag alive.
In 1637, John Winthrop, who led English migrants to the New World and helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony where he served as governor for several years, declared an official day of thanksgiving after a successful war against the Pequot people of Connecticut, which, similarly, nearly eliminated the entire tribe. From Winthrop's journal, "A day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots, and for the success of the assembly."
A similar day of thanksgiving was proclaimed after King Philip's war, as the English believed these to be successes against heathens for the service of God. And numerous other days of thanksgiving were also officially proclaimed and celebrated throughout the year by the various self-governing colonies and states for more benign events for decades to come. It wasn't until 1861, under President Abraham Lincoln, where Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national holiday to be celebrated by all the states in the union on the last Thursday of November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1941, changed the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November, to the fourth Thursday believing it would be better for the nation's economy.
Our modern day celebration of Thanksgiving is much more complicated than simply a remembrance of a questionably friendly dinner between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag pepole in 1621. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag were anything but friendly and fought each other to the death. Native Americans were killed mercilessly in the name of God, had their land unapologetically taken, and continue to be some of the most marginalized and poor citizens of the United States today.
For a more mindful Thanksgiving, we might consider observing a moment of silence, with love in our hearts, at 12pm on Thanksgiving Day in solidarity with the Native Americans for whom this holiday is a painful memory of a sordid past. We might also consider sharing this story with others who may not be familiar with it. And lastly, we might feel humbled, if we are learning about this for the first time.
Abstain from Mindless Indulgence
According to a 2014 report published by the Journal of American Medicine, more than one third or 34.9% of the adult US population is obese. If you count those who are overweight, the statistic rises to more than two thirds or 68.8%.
Though the numbers have decreased in recent years, still, 1.2 billion or a little more than 14% of the total world population lives in extreme poverty, defined as subsisting on $1.25/day or less. 3 billion, or a little less than 50% of the total human population, survives on $2.50/day or less.
According to UNICEF research, approximately 20,000 children under the age of five die each day due to poverty releated issues like malnutrition, hunger, and lack of access to medical care.
World Bank research indicates that in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world (which would include the United States), accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth, only 1.5%.
What this means (and what we already know) is there is a clear, indisputable split between haves and have nots, and a starkly contrasted distribution of wealth and resources, which results in a world where some die from obesity and others from starvation.
There is a clear, indisputable split between haves and have nots, and a starkly contrasted distribution of wealth and resources, which results in a world where some die from obesity and others from starvation.
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), around 254 million turkeys were raised in 2012 for human consumption and over 45 million were slaughtered for Thanksgiving Day meals. The vast majority of these birds are raised in industrial factories and subjected to unthinkably cruel and traumatizing treatment, such as extreme overcrowding, debeaking, and toe removal (to prevent fighting). During the slaughtering procedure, turkeys are shackled by their feet and hung upside down to die in a frenzied, chaotic assembly line that can result in some surviving the blade meant to slit their throats, instead, boiling to death in a scalding tank that removes the feathers.
Given all of this—the gross inequity and animal cruelty—for a more mindful Thanksgiving, you may want to consider whether you want to eat turkey meat or go vegetarian instead, or fast and forsake eating altogether. If anybody gives you grief for your stance, point them to this information, which they might not be aware of.
If turkey is something you or your family absolutely can't live without, consider purchasing "pasture-raised" or "free range" turkey from a local farmer or insist on it with whoever is hosting your dinner. These birds have lived their lives in the outdoors and have probably been slaughtered under far less cruel circumstances by farmers who care more than a factory worker. Don't be mislead by "organic" or "natural" turkeys sold in grocery stories, as those terms are not closely regulated by the FDA, e.g., for a turkey to have a "certified organic" label, it means they must have access (only) to the outdoors—it doesn't necessarily mean they were raised outdoors.
Celebrate the Spirit of Thanksgiving
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, in particular, North America, this is a remarkably precious time of the year. Nature is retreating, days are shorter, temperatures are cooler, and winter is on the horizon. It's a time where the pace of life slows and our attention draws inward toward matters of the heart. Symbolically, we are entering into a dark, underworld passage of change and transformation to be reborn anew in spring. As such, we naturally yearn for coziness, food comforts, and time with family—our partners in the human journey whom we, in many ways, rely on for survival.
Such is the spirit of Thanksgiving. Stopping. Taking a look around. Appreciating what you have and appreciating those around you. You are not alone in life's struggles. Gifts are given to you, daily, to help you, keep you alive, and help you grow into a fuller, more beautiful expression of who you are. It is a time to acknowledge the basic kindness of life and Nature's immense power over us. It is a time to bow and give thanks, as our ancestors have done for millenia.
For a more mindful Thanksgiving, you may want to ask my friend Lahar for her 21 Days of Gratitude Handbook (she may just give you one for free)—a book that helps you find greater gratitude over the course of an intimate, 21-day journey. Or make your own list of what you're grateful for. You may want to reach out to people in your life, i.e., call or tell them vs. text or email them, how much you appreciate them. You may want to spend the day alone, in silence, or in meditation reflecting on your life and blessings. You may want to say a prayer for all the Native Americans who died and for all those who live in poverty and go without, including those within the borders of the United States.
Whatever the particular ritual, take the time to pause and to be.
Give Instead of Take
Thanksgiving, like Christmas, has increasingly become a commerical, money-making holiday. According to CNN Money, in 2013, shoppers in the US spent $12.3 billion in stores on Black Friday, the infamous day after Thanksgiving where deep discounts can be found on most consumer goods. Black Friday, and the frenzy it creates, has resulted in deathly human stampedes at Wal-Mart, a man getting stabbed over a parking space dispute in Virginia, and numerous other unflattering squirmishes between people angrily competing for things they want.
We've gone from a day of mindless eating to mindless consuming, and the picture just isn't pretty when you consider the 20,000 children, from before, under the age of five who will die on this day from poverty.
For a more mindful Thanksgiving, can we find ways to give instead? That could be that phone call or letter to let somebody know how much you appreciate them. That could be volunteering at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Donating to a worthy cause. Performing an anonymous act of kindness. Something, from the heart, that serves others.
For a more mindful Thanksgiving, can we find ways to give instead?
May your Thanksgiving celebrations be mindful, blessed, and in good, spirited company. May you find the blessings in your life and the strength to pay them forward. May we remember the downtrodden and oppressed. May we remember those who have sacrificed for us.
How do you plan on celebrating Thanksgiving more mindfully? Feel to drop a line in the comments.