Before coming to the United States of America (USA), Thanksgiving didn’t mean much to me. While I caught glimpses of this holiday in American sitcoms, my understanding of it remained at that: distant and apathetic. My impression of Thanksgiving was limited to stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, mash potatoes and sweet corn – delicious yet highly superficial. Similar to some of the holidays in Singapore, Thanksgiving was an occasion synonymous with good food and merry-making. Yet, akin to an increasingly commercialized Christmas, there has got to be something deeper and more meaningful to Thanksgiving right?
In 2012 during my year abroad in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was fortunate to have a friend, Lindsey, invite me over to her home for Thanksgiving. I was lucky to have an “adopted” family for a span of 5 days. And in retrospect, I could not have asked for a better way to spend my first ever Thanksgiving in America; a thanksgiving spent with the Luxon family.
My impression of thanksgiving became very different immediately after we left our university for Lindsey’s home. Her home was approximately three hours away and the majority of the journey was spent on the interstate highway. But our journey took longer than three hours – we were stuck in heavy traffic. Entering the highway, we saw bumper to bumper traffic; different vehicles of all shape and sizes with one common destination: home. (Imagine rush hour traffic on the CTE or PIE – it was something like that, only with much more cars and lesser lanes on the expressways). Yet, the scene of the traffic jam immediately made me perceive Thanksgiving in a deeper light: family and friends were all heading home together. Very much like the reunion dinner for the eve of Chinese New Year, Thanksgiving reunited family and friends. From the onset of the trip, this was turning out to be a very meaningful Thanksgiving for me.
As the car turned into the driveway of Lindsey’s home, I saw Lindsey’s father standing outside in the cold, waiting to welcome us. And that tableau of a father waiting anxiously for the arrival of his daughter back home really moved me. In a typical Singaporean way, I greeted him enthusiastically with a handshake and said “Hello Uncle!” However, my greeting was met with a huge chuckle. In my excitement, I forgot that people in the USA did not usually greet their friends’ parents by “Uncle” or “Aunty”. Nevertheless, I felt happy and proud to bring a bit of my Singaporean manners to the Luxon household. Entering the home, I was greeted with the aroma of delicious home cooked food (oh how I miss thee!), a fully prepared dinner table and the warmth smile of Lindsey’s mother (whom I happily addressed as Aunty).
Dinner was a really enjoyable affair. Apart from the incredibly delicious cuisines, what made dinner even more wonderful was seeing love personified through the conversations of Lindsey and her parents. The conversations were not incredibly profound or extraordinary – far from it actually – it was simple, genuine and heartfelt. “How are things in school?”, “Don’t stay up too late to study!”, “Are you eating well? Here, have more of the mashed potatoes.” These conversations reminded me of my very own family, the simple things that my parents and I talk about during meal times. Isn’t it incredible how love (and the presence of God) becomes so real in the simplest things of Life?
The next few days spent with the Luxon family was an incredible experience. Preparation for thanksgiving was really fun! As I have always enjoyed cooking (perhaps half as much as I enjoy eating), I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with Lindsey’s mother to prepare food. I made the turkey stuffing and had a hand in stuffing the turkey thereafter. I was given a quick lesson on the intricate ways of baking a turkey and had a few interesting conversations with “Aunty” (she even shared with me a family secret for preparing coffee!). Thanksgiving became more tangible to me; I was beginning to grasp the crux of its purpose better.
The highlight of my stay was during the family’s thanksgiving lunch. The array of dishes on the dining table was everything that I imagined it to be, and more. That meal was easily the best that I have had in months. But what encapsulated the entire meal and made Thanksgiving all the more memorable was the moment before we actually began eating. With family and friends around the table, “Uncle” began to lead us in a prayer. But unlike previous prayers before meals, he began to give thanks for the many wondrous things that God has given to him in his life: a lovely wife, a loving family and a meaningful career. He also gave thanks to God for my presence with his family on this special holiday.
That prayer best described Thanksgiving for me. Apart from its meaningful historical narrative, Thanksgiving in essence is a holiday for giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving at its core is the awareness of the many graces of God in our lives. And while it is true that we really should not only give thanks to God only during Thanksgiving, this simple yet profound shift in the understanding of Thanksgiving moved me incredibly.
Thanksgiving now means so much more to me. Apart from being a holiday for family reunions, good food and merry-making, it calls us to take a moment to pause, reflect and give thanks to God. Interestingly, Thanksgiving also occurs at a very apt timing – it happens just before Advent, it is the holiday before Christmas. Seen in this light, Thanksgiving becomes a very wonderful occasion: it allows us to be appreciative and receptive to God the Father, before God the son comes to us in the form of baby Jesus during Christmas. Let us then use the remaining time we have in Advent to give thanks to God as we welcome the birth of our savior in our own special and unique thanksgivings.