How does your family/extended family traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving is, hands down, my favorite civic holiday! There’s nothing like family and friends gathered around a huge table overladen with food and the cacophony of friendly laughter and conversation. Even as a child, Thanksgiving rivaled Christmas as my favorite holiday. Growing up it was cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and new girlfriends/boyfriends laughing and feasting together, filling the house with music and talent shows and sporting events! When my grandmother was alive, the table was full before people showed up with their offerings, and leftovers lasted for days!
Does your parish exempt members from fasting just for that day? Some do, some don’t.
Our parish does exempt people from fasting during the Thanksgiving holiday. As a specifically American holiday (different even than its Canadian counterpart), it’s part of being Orthodox in America–that we set aside a day of feasting and thanksgiving in the midst of the fast.
In your experience, how do Orthodox bring their faith into their observation of Thanksgiving?
I know Orthodox people for whom the November Thanksgiving is perhaps a fish day, but not a full break from the fasting restrictions. Others celebrate on the second Monday in October (Canadian Thanksgiving) so they still have the great harvest feast without breaking the fast. Others, like my own, celebrate with the rest of our “tribe.” In an American context, celebrating Thanksgiving in November with family and friends is a sacred act, full of meaning and reuniting and restoring relationships. In my experience, the act of giving thanks is central to being a Christian. The Eucharist is our central sacrament, and a life spent giving thanks through joyful feasting is central to Orthodox piety. So we pray our prayers, and bless the food–perhaps sing an Akathist on the day of or during that weekend to consecrate our time to God.
How do Thanksgiving celebrations work when some members of an extended family are Orthodox and some are not? Is this something you’ve experienced?
The Church has always exempted fasting in order to perform acts of hospitality. Insisting on someone fasting who is not Orthodox is rude and counter to the spirit and teaching about fasting. When offered food, we always accept, regardless of the fasting season. To do otherwise would be to create a stumbling block (other than Christ Himself) to the Church’s mission and ministry on earth.
What are your thoughts on the ways our fasting practices and our belief in hospitality affect each other?
I believe it was St. Jerome who said, “One must unfold himself in order to keep hospitality,” even if that means breaking a fast. Christians do not exist for fasting, fasting exists for Christians. Like Jesus’ teachings on the Sabbath, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae and miss the greater blessing or–God forbid–commit the greater sin! Straining the gnat, but swallowing a camel is a real danger in a hyper-secularized world, and Orthodox Christians need to be on guard that we do not, like the Pharisees, pride ourselves in our broad phylacteries and long prayers in order to be seen and heard by men.