Releasing Thanksgiving, Embracing Advent
(TW: mention of David Haas and sexual assault)
Two nights ago, all the restlessness and disconnectedness I’ve been feeling in the last couple of weeks got some focus, thanks to the house being uniquely empty and quiet, and George Winston’s 1982 December album playing in my background.
That morning, Sunday, Else left for St. Olaf after Thanksgiving break.
The day before, David flew back out East to be with his family for a few days.
Karl had gone to sleep.
And so there I was, for the first time in an awfully long time, effectively alone in the house.
Before you queue up images from Home Alone, instead, this was the scene:
I pulled up George Winston’s December, as one obviously does in such moments, and I walked through the empty home, a glass of red in my hand, and boxes of Advent decorations waiting to be unpacked, along with baskets of laundry waiting to be folded.
It was oddly melancholy, all the moreso because after the flurry of Else’s visit, and some pre-holiday cleaning, sorting, cooking, and bread baking, I suddenly had some time to think, and if I’m honest with myself, probably also to feel.
George Winston, you see, he always does it to me, transporting me to the simple times of high school, and countless nights listening to “December” while curled up on our living room couch late on a winter night, only the gentle white Christmas tree lights illuminating the room, cup of cocoa in my hand, probably a boyfriend on my mind, and to complete the scene—I really do remember this—snow falling outside our windows.
I felt so protected, so warm, so content.
I was so safe from so much.
Although I didn’t yet have first hand experience with an alternate experience, I had an inkling of it.
I knew that there was both truth to what I was feeling, and still, I had enough sense, in every meaning of the word, to know that it was an illusion too.
The mental scenes were too idyllic, my father was no slouch at preaching—and, depending on the day, incarnating—Amos, and Dane that I am, if nothing else I knew The Little Match Girl too well.
Somehow the purity of George Winston’s music, played almost exclusively during this stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, both reinforced that comforting bubble and made me see it, even if the bubble didn’t burst until years later.
So there I am on Sunday night, listening to GW, as reflective as all get-out.
Not depressed, just…wistful. Out of sorts. Disconnected from what I wanted to be feeling on Thanksgiving and should be feeling on the first day of Advent.
I have the couch.
I have the cocoa.
I have the boyfriend (husband, actually, and I can not believe my luck/blessing/gift, but more on that happy thing in a future post).
I have the snow.
I have George Winston.
I even now have the real live fireplace.
But this year, I just wasn’t feeling “it,” this beloved, familiar, festive Thanksgiving-And-Christmas-Is-Right-Around-The-Corner spirit.
We had a feast, though not with standard Thanksgiving fare: David roasted a beautiful pork loin because no one likes turkey, and since Christmas dinner serves up many of the dishes that tend to be found at a Thanksgiving table, Else and I bagged mashed potatoes and gravy, and found some off-beat Fall-themed sides instead.
But food spread notwithstanding, that familiar Thanksgiving Day vibe still wasn’t there for me.
Oddly enough, in the few days before Thanksgiving, I began to realize that the final catalyst for my discontent was, of all things, another musician, actually, the now infamous David Haas.
Haas composed such beautiful hymns like “Blest Are They” and “We are Called” and “You Are Mine.”
I’m sure that I’ve been reduced to tears in worship on several occasions while singing his music: his lyrics and tunes are powerfully moving.
But people, the guy—this child of God who will be forgiven and redeemed, just as Haas’ own songs have proclaimed in song—has been accused of sexual misconduct by many many women over the course of over four decades.
As the accusations accrued and began finally getting the attention that they should have, distributors of his music have ceased including his repertoire in their hymnals or providing it in any way.
The ELCA has requested that congregations refuse to employ his music at all.
Debate, of course, is everywhere:
He’s in the wrong here, obviously, but isn’t the music redeemable?
Everyone is flawed; can’t we praise God with his music while condemning his behavior?
But the contrary voices point out that Haas still receives royalties, that some of his music was itself a tool of his grooming and assault techniques, and that members who have themselves been abused are re-abused when they are forced to sing this man’s music.
The hard thing to do, but the right thing to do, is to sacrifice the music for the sake of those who suffer because of it.
It clicked, last week, that this grievous tale is not not a far off analogy with that told about and on Thanksgiving.
Contrary to the beloved legend of Thanksgiving, the day is actually rooted in a racist and propagandized myth.
That’s, obviously, not who we want to be.
But this celebration is ensconced in US tradition, one which not only mis-represents the history on which it’s based, but it neglects to mention the genocide that followed from that storied feast.
Schoolchildren parade about in colored paper headdresses feasting with pilgrims, and as the story goes, everyone but the turkey was content.
The clear message has been that then and forevermore, peaceful easy feelings reigned between the Indigenous people and the whites…who, in point of fact, brought disease, devastation, and destruction to the land and way of life of those who had been there for countless time.
That isn’t so much in the pageants…probably because that’s not who we want to be…but it is who we have been, and, truth be told, still are.
See, I can hear the same sorts of arguments about Thanksgiving that we hear related to Haas:
OK fine, the history isn’t redeemable, but can’t the intent of Thanksgiving be?
Can we not simultaneously feast and give thanks while condemning our past?
The contrary voices, though, not least of those from our First Nations siblings, are generally…ouch.
Because while there has been a magnet that hovers over Thanksgiving and removes the loss of Native culture, stories, land, and rights that is anchored to this day, there’s no magnet that can hover over the day and remove the cutting, insulting, infuriating grief of that loss.
We can read up on it (take a look at this piece in the Smithsonian, for example) and we can post sweet memes and prompts to Remember Our Indigenous Siblings, but we can’t alter that the day is fundamentally rooted in a self-serving myth of white people that intentionally ignores the harm that was and continues to be done through it.
At first, I called myself a Thanksgiving Scrooge, but…I’ve come to rethink that.
I think evaluating whether to celebrate Thanksgiving isn’t a scrooge-y thing.
It’s an honest thing, a Calling A Thing What It Is thing, an empathetic thing.
The hard thing to do, but the right thing to do, is to sacrifice the day for the sake of those who suffer because of it.
To be clear, I’m not patting myself on the back about my metanoia here: I’ve been hearing urges to abandon Thanksgiving for decades and for exactly these reasons.
White supremacy has game, I tell you what.
But now, I am convinced that it’s disingenuous to celebrate that which others mourn, and to honor a day that others ask us not to mark, or if at all, to mark with dishonor instead.
To my mind at least, just like it is wrong to continue to play Haas’ music, it seems wrong to persist in ignoring the trauma of Thanksgiving Day, and thereby continue to cause trauma.
That, to my mind at least, being said and true, just like with no longer appropriately singing Haas’ hymns, I confess that man, there’s a loss there.
People talk about being ‘woke’ as being so radical and celebratory and freeing, and it is, ultimately.
But in point of fact, waking up to see what hadn’t been seen before involves some loss of cherished ways of being, of historical privilege, of idyllic myth, of a fundamentally false identity that has caused harm about which one has either ignored, rationalized, or been heretofore oblivious.
That, in a word, is a bummer.
Or, to put it another way, I’m grieving a bit.
It’s not lost to me that “Thanksgiving” is the first song on Winston’s December album, by the way.
The tune has always struck me as melancholy, and so it was fitting background music to mull a treasured loss, even if one gone for a good reason.
So now I’m trying to think of another way of culling the best of what Thanksgiving purports to be: the richness of family gatherings, and the intentional lifting up of genuine gratitude, and a pausing in the midst of normal frenzy to rest.
Perhaps Advent might come to the rescue.
Last Sunday marked the first day of this season.
I acknowledge that I say this about every liturgical season, but Advent really is my favorite.
I remember I was three months pregnant with Karl when we were leading Advent worship services in Germany, and gosh those texts about anticipating Jesus, and the child who leapt in Mary’s womb, just as I was beginning to wonder whether I was feeling fluttering or just indigestion…it was overwhelming to me.
I remember feeling my belly through my alb as my late husband read the texts, and I heard the words about “quickening” in an entirely new, dare I say incarnate, way.
Advent is a decadent, intense season, deeply rooted in images of light and dark, God’s anger and God’s abiding love, injustice and the overturning of it.
But the most powerful symbols are simple:
A candle for the first Sunday.
Two for the next.
Three for the third.
Four for the last.
And all the while, the unlit Christ candle waits for that flame.
Despite the psychedelic, apocalyptic, sometimes terrifying fervor of the texts, the message of Advent is, in fact, also simple.
God loves this world.
God loves God’s people.
God calls us to love one another.
When we do not, we are called to repent.
When we don’t repent, we cause others angst and God anger.
So stop harming, stop not repenting, and do justice and love instead.
Listen to just a smattering of the Advent texts, replete with words showing us God, and beckoning us to live as people of God.
Isaiah 2:4 “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Romans 13:12 “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Psalm 72:4 “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”
Romans 15:5-6 “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Matthew 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Isaiah 35:1-2a “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”
Psalm 146:5-8 “146:5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.”
Matthew 1:23 “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, ‘God is with us.’”
Advent, it seems to me, is techno-color all about living life as a child of God.
It’s the season of anticipating not just Jesus, but the reign of God.
So that means, then, feasting, and welcoming all to the table.
It means giving thanks for the God of the past, and present, and future.
It means giving up gods of the past, and present, and future.
It means owning up to when we’ve been wrong, and living life from that point on in a different way.
It means living life as a righteous one, seeing injustice, doing justice, offering mercy, walking humbly.
It means seeing that everywhere, and in everything and everyone, God is with us.
It means seeing ourselves, known as Christians, as being seen as representations of God.
It means grasping that what we do illustrates who our God is, both when we do it right, and when we do it wrong.
Advent is the season when we engage ourselves, others, and the world as if the reign of God is fully here, because God is here, and we are beacons of that very God.
Maybe, then, we can transfer the best of that which has been Thanksgiving to the season of Advent.
Maybe rather than a historically fraught Day of Thanksgiving, we can become a Way of Thanksgiving.
With that in mind, in this first week of Advent, I settle into my couch, and reach for my cocoa, and my husband, and my George Winston, and watch the snow, and light a fire, and light a candle, and give thanks for the God of even uncomfortable transformations, Emmanuel, God with us.
Below are some links to articles by Indigenous writers who, for similar reasons, are giving up or re-imagining Thanksgiving, and inviting us to do the same.
“Why I’m Not Celebrating Thanksgiving This Year,” Vogue, 2020 By Christian Allaire
“The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday,” Time, 2019 By Sean Sherman, “The Sioux Chef”
”Stop Celebrating Thanksgiving,” by Prof. Stephanie Masta