THANKSGIVING DURING COVID & THE HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING
By Benjamin J. Dueholm @ ministrymatters.com
You’ll start hearing it this week, if you haven’t already: a slow, almost somber minor-key tune with lyrics that don’t quite fit. “Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
However, the original version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” written for the World War II-era musical Meet Me in St. Louis, isn’t quite as optimistic as the one we hear now. The gathering of faithful friends lies in a possible future, not a cheery present. Instead, the first line said “Someday soon” the family will all be together, and the next somberly expressed that “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
I would argue that it’s a better song than the revised version (prompted, apparently, by a post-war demand from Frank Sinatra for happier lyrics), not just because the melancholy music needs melancholy lyrics but because it perfectly captured a real moment in time — the mass experience of separation and uncertainty during an unprecedented global war. “Muddling through” was all most people could do.
Today, Americans are entering a holiday season amid a massive social and economic disruption on a scale that has no parallel since Meet Me in St. Louis came out in 1944. Gathering and celebrating during a pandemic that has taken at least a quarter of a million American lives and sickened millions more poses serious challenges and gives us all a cause to consider what the “holiday season” even means.
Medical experts are urging caution about travel and family gatherings, warning that holiday travel can spread the virus to places where it hasn’t yet become prevalent, or bring travelers from relatively low-risk areas to places where the virus is spreading uncontrollably. Additionally, large gatherings, indoors and without masks, create significant risks that increase with age. “This is not a one-size-fits-all issue,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “It depends on what risk you want to take.”
As of late October, Americans had booked significantly less airline travel for November than usual. While the economy overall is in stronger shape than many expected earlier this year, the end of enhanced unemployment insurance coupled with relatively high unemployment have created some uncertainty for holiday retail spending. Food insecurity also seems to be increasing significantly. Meanwhile, people are coming up with creative techniques for virtual celebrations, outdoor meals or even just smaller gatherings.
All of this adds up to a heavily-altered experience during one of the most important common festivals in America. Holiday travel and gift-buying are important to the functioning of our economy. Family gatherings around the holidays offer a rare, socially-sanctioned opportunity to cook and eat together across generations and geography that build up the bonds that sustain families over time. If we can’t (or shouldn’t) do what we want, most of us will need to do something.
A season of grief
All of this dislocation is even more pronounced for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. The Faces of COVID project has been highlighting individual deaths in this wave of loss, each one a cause for family and community grief. At the end of October, the United States was averaging approximately 1,000 new deaths daily due to the pandemic. The total number of confirmed deaths will soon be more than 250,000. Moreover, the death toll has not been evenly spread. Black and Latino communities have been hit especially hard. This experience of mass death — there’s no softer word for it — is unlike anything Americans have experienced since the Second World War.
A death in the family has always had the power to alter the mood and meaning of holiday gatherings. But COVID-related deaths have been different as so many families were left without an opportunity to say goodbye or even gather together in the immediate aftermath of a loss. Many families have been hit with multiple COVID-related deaths. These absences, compounded by the risks of gathering and the financial dislocation of an economic downturn, will make this holiday particularly difficult for many families.
“Taking someone off life support, not saying goodbye or not holding a funeral can bring on feelings similar to those experienced after a trauma,” Jessica Jacoby wrote for University of Chicago Medicine back in May. She recommends “self-compassion” and making an effort to remember loved ones in creative ways during this unusual season of grief.
An annual ritual like Thanksgiving can be a way to prove to ourselves that life goes on after the death of a family member. We mourn, but we persevere as we reaffirm the bonds of family. We have the chance to laugh, cry, and strengthen memories of our departed loved one. All of that will be harder for many more people this year.
While this year Thanksgiving will take place amid suffering without a recent parallel, it’s not especially unusual in human history. Festivals have long celebrated the endurance of life and community through danger. Planting and harvesting, the return of the seasons, and the commemoration of crises survived by our ancestors (both historical and legendary) are ancient foundations for festivals all over the world. The festivals found in the Jewish and Christian traditions are no different. The Passover festival commemorates a narrow and deadly escape from enslavement; the Christian celebration of Easter starts with a trial and crucifixion; and our early festivals often commemorated the deaths of martyrs. Even Christmas takes place in the shadow of Herod’s anger and the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem.
Today, Thanksgiving is much more a civil than a religious holiday, but it has deep roots in Christian communal practice. Christians have every opportunity to make good use of it, especially now. A suffering world is also a redeemed world. Commemorating a narrow escape from hunger, oppression, or the grave itself is cause for humility and generosity along with rejoicing.
Sometimes a little merriment is its own kind of victory. “Someday soon we all will be together,” as the song says. It’s a statement of hope and aspiration. This year, we all need that more than turkey and pie.
THE HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING
Days of Thanksgiving in North America are older than the founding of the United States. While there is much legend in the traditional story of the pilgrim-era “first Thanksgiving,” the New England colonies regularly proclaimed official days of either fasting or giving thanks. George Washington also proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving on October 3, 1789.
During the Civil War, on the anniversary of Washington’s proclamation, Abraham Lincoln announced an annual day of thanksgiving to be held on the last Thursday in November. Amid the staggering destruction of the war, Lincoln called for the people to recount the many blessings of prosperity and peace with other nations. Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation calls these blessings “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” The national holiday has its most direct roots in a moment of deep national crisis. When the proclamation finally took effect in the fall of 1864, Atlanta had recently fallen to the Union Army and the war was finally moving toward its end.
In 1939, with the national economy still mired in the Great Depression, President Roosevelt and the Congress agreed to move the holiday from the last Thursday (which that year was to fall on November 30) to the fourth Thursday, giving retailers an extra week of holiday shopping. This is where it has remained ever since.
Pastor Michael Williams