Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Orthodox Christians and Thanksgiving


By John Sanidopoulos

The Pilgrims who came to America in 1620, brave as they were, were Christian sectarians who wanted nothing to do with the Papal Church or the Church of England. They arrived in what they considered the "Promised Land" for the sake of their free religious expression where they could live the Gospel in what they considered to be its purest form. Stripped from all the traditions of Christian Europe, they abandoned even celebrations such as Christmas, since the date of Christ's birth was not in the Bible. Unbeknownst to them, however, a feast between them and Native American tribes, whom they relied on for survival, has come down as probably America's most popular tradition.

Of course, Thanksgiving as we know it today did not originate with the Pilgrims as many suppose, though their feast is the model for it. This is one of the myths circulated about Thanksgiving that even most Americans were taught in school. Another myth of Thanksgiving is that it is traditional for Americans in the United States to have a feast on days proclaimed by U.S. Presidents as days of Thanksgiving. In fact, days of Thanksgiving in early America called for a national day of prayer and fasting, due to a lack of ecclesiastical feasts by Protestants, and not family gathering, football watching and turkey feasting and all the other good stuff associated with the holiday. (Read more here, here and here.)

Orthodox Christians in the United States are in a unique position regarding the celebration of Thanksgiving, which is our patriotic duty. Thanksgiving is no longer a time of fasting in our culture, but of feasting with family and friends, something which began to take shape after the Civil War in the 19th century and the Lincoln proclamation. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln called on all Americans to observe on the last Thursday of November a day of Thanksgiving and Praise for all the good things God has bestowed on us as individuals and as a country, and since that time every American President has followed his example to make a similar proclamation.

For those who follow the New Calendar (Revised Julian Calendar), the giant feast associated with Thanksgiving coincides with a period of 40-day fasting prior to Christmas, though it sometimes falls within the Old Calendar fasting period as well (when the fast begins on a Thursday that falls on November 28th). Generally, however, a pastoral dispensation, which was initially granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is given by local Metropolitans and parish priests to allow the Orthodox faithful to participate in this traditional American holiday as a harvest festival, a time for families to come together and celebrate, and to offer thanks to God for all He grants to us individually, as a family and as a country. The Nativity season is usually a fairly lenient fasting time as well, especially before December 18th, so such "economia" should not be looked upon as a major violation of any canonical rule (see here). Also, as Christians, the Apostle Paul advises us to not give offense either by our fasting or our feasting, and certainly it would be odd for Orthodox Christian citizens in America to not join the rest of the country in commonly celebrating a Thanksgiving feast to the glory of God, whether it be with the traditional meats or not, after all, even many atheists celebrate some sort of Thanks on this day as well. "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). Ideally it is recommended for Orthodox to participate in the Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving morning prior to feasting, since the Divine Eucharist is the ultimate offering of thanksgiving to God. An Akathist of Thanksgiving is also available, which can be read privately.

A Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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