This Thanksgiving day article by Fr. Barnabas Powell is for our new calendar readers this year, but there are years when Thanksgiving falls during the Nativity fast for those on the old calendar as well. Enjoy your Thanksgiving day!
Every year around this time, I'm asked a similar question by newer parishioners and inquirers into Orthodoxy: "What do we do about Thanksgiving?"
The concern rises from the fact that on Nov. 15, Eastern Christians (along with Roman Catholics and some Protestants) enter the season of Advent, a 40-day period of preparation for Christmas.
From ancient times, this Nativity Fast has involved an abstinence from meat, dairy and certain other foods. Where does that leave Thanksgiving, given that it falls right inside the fast, and we all know you can't have "Turkey Day" without the turkey? Are we to ignore the day, for the sake of Advent? Or, disregard Advent to celebrate it?
My answer to this perennial question begins by acknowledging that different practices exist -- but, if you ask me, Thanksgiving is the most fundamentally Christian of all American holidays, and therefore we absolutely must celebrate it.
In a sense, Thanksgiving is even more Christian than Christmas or Easter, nowadays, insofar as these holidays involve such an emphasis on commercialism that their theological meaning is obscured and relativized. Despite the Black Friday madness (and attempts to bring it forward), Thanksgiving is still a day for family. It's also a day whose very name evokes the central, liturgical act of Christians.
"Thanksgiving" is equivalent to the Greek evcharistia, from which we get "Eucharist." With that connection in mind, it's my parish practice to begin our Thanksgiving celebration with the Divine Liturgy (the Eucharistic service of the Eastern Church). The Body and Blood of Christ are the Thanksgiving meal, which no turkey can ever beat.
You may think a service on Thanksgiving morning would draw a small crowd or be seen as an unwelcome intrusion into a family day of rest. But the many who attend say this Liturgy is the heart of Thanksgiving for them. After that, all else is simply a matter of menu.
And regarding that issue, my big concern isn't that people will break the fast by eating meat. It's that they'll break the rule of hospitality by asserting their fasting in mixed company.
Thus, I remind everyone that if someone invites us to a meal, on any fast day whatsoever, we eat what's put before us without question. The goal of fasting is to acquire obedience, meekness and humility -- not to become righteous by observing rules for rules' sake. So, eat what's put on your plate, and let that submission be your fast.
However, if you're an Orthodox family preparing a meal for yourselves (such as mine will be), then I suggest considering some nice fish dish instead -- which, after all, is probably a more authentic representation of what the Pilgrims actually ate. This may sound like heresy, but turkey doesn't make Thanksgiving. Giving thanks does.
What does one of America's smaller religious minorities do about our country's great, national holiday? We thank God it exists, and pass the potatoes.