“How to Survive Thanksgiving!” The headlines are fairly blaring with post-election advice on how to get along with family members this holiday season. “Be prepared to walk out!” they advise, as though protest is the greater part of valor. They seem to think we have nothing to talk about except politics, and nothing in common at that.
This anticipation of acrimony makes me sad. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinner since I was fourteen years old, when my mother gladly relinquished the turkey duties to me so she could join the guests in the living room. I love the very concept of Thanksgiving: gathering family and friends around a table laden with delicious foods to contemplate blessings, express gratitude, reminisce with loved ones and become acquainted with new friends. I find it impossible to feel angry and grateful at the same time.
Yet I was told recently–rather angrily in fact–that gratitude is a bad thing–that expressing appreciation is a sign of weakness because it implies a hierarchy. The one giving thanks is now beholden to the other and is therefore diminished by the benefactor. She was offended by the very idea of apprecation. In sum, giving thanks should be banished from Thanksgiving. What a sad perspective on human interaction.
“Breaking bread together” has long been an expression and symbol of peace. In fact, the very word “companion” means “one with whom bread is broken.” We celebrate significant occasions with feasting or treats, and we associate special foods with special occasions. We break bread together in glad times and in sad, when we celebrate and when we mourn. We even call it “comfort food.” Family therapist Anne Frankel identifies family dinner as “the most important thing you can do for your kids….sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit.”
Breaking bread is also a longstanding element of contract negotiation. In biblical times, breaking bread was a way to signal that negotiations were finished and an agreement had been reached. Eating together was an intimate act, one that symbolized becoming a part of the family.
We see an example of this in the story of Eliezer and Rebekah in Genesis 24. Eliezer, Abraham’s chief servant, had been sent to Haran to find a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac. A gentile from Damascus, Eliezer was not of Abraham’s faith. Nevertheless, he prayed to the God of Abraham for guidance, and his prayer was answered in a miraculous way, leading him to find Rebekah at the well in exactly the manner Eliezer had described in his prayer. Overjoyed, Rebekah brought Eliezer to meet her brother Laban, who, seeing that Eliezer was tired and dusty from his journey of 400 miles, set food before the traveler.
But Eliezer would not eat until they discussed the proffered marriage contract. Then, after the negotiations were complete, they ate together, shared their stories, and marveled at the goodness of God. The next morning, when Rebekah was asked whether she was willing to accompany Eliezer back to Canaan to begin a new life as the wife of the prophet’s son, she replied simply, “I will go.” The story begins with a heartfelt prayer and ends with a feast of Thanksgiving.
Sharing food helps us break down barriers, open hearts, lubricate stories, heal wounds, and seal relationships.
Eating has also been used as sacred symbolism. Under the ancient law of sacrifice, families brought an animal to the altar to be slaughtered and burned. But this wasn’t a wanton or wasteful misuse of the animal; it was a ritualized blessing on their food and a reminder to their families that all gifts came from God. They shared a portion with the priest, called the “heave offering,” and brought the larger portion of the cooked meat back home with them to eat. Nothing was wasted, and gratitude was expressed.
Similarly, God used the Seder meal of roasted lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread as a symbol of the Passover, when the destroying angel had passed over the homes of the faithful before the Exodus from Egypt. It was during the Passover meal at the last supper of His mortal life that Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion, using the bread and wine as a symbol of His body and blood; He Himself would become the sacrificial Lamb.
We break much more than bread on Thanksgiving (although those soft yummy pillows of yeast and flour play a big role in the feast). Sharing food helps us break down barriers, open hearts, lubricate stories, heal wounds, and seal relationships. The best way to “survive” Thanksgiving during these turbulent times? Show a little more kindness, a little more grace, a little more love toward those around the table. And yes, maybe avoid a few topics–or better yet, find some common ground in them.
As we break bread this season, let us remember the holiness of the holiday, as recorded in the Thanksgiving hymn: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing….Sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own. ” Neither should we forget Him on this day made holy by our sincere gratitude for the gift of family, friendship, and all the goodness in our lives–even when it comes with a bit of darkness too. How to survive Thanksgiving? Banish divisiveness with sincere reflections of gratitude. And thrive.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Chapman University.
You can read more about Rebekah and other remarkable heroines of the Bible in her book Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ.
For an autographed copy go to http://www.matriarchsofthemessiah.com/buy-the-book/