Let’s Transform Thanksgiving . . . Into Stranger Day

Save the comfortable for Christmas. Take a risk this Thanksgiving. 

Have you ever thought Thanksgiving was a wasted holiday? Before you call me a holiday heretic, think about all of its shortcomings.

It’s way too close to Christmas, which means two hearty meals within one month and little hope of wearing your pleather skinnies in between. Plane ticket costs are astronomical and so are the expectations that you will foot the bill to come home, if not this year then next year, because you are on a two-year rotation after your parents’ divorce. And whether you stay local or travel far, the day is too often characterized by a thin gratitude for comfort. Celebrating good food, good friends, and, fingers crossed, a good football game isn’t all that distinctive for many of us.

I want to celebrate something stranger.

The guest is as God

There are national holidays in the U.S. for mothers and fathers, for bosses and administrative professionals, for veterans and nurses and even library workers — but there is no holiday that celebrates the stranger. This is a real loss seeing as how the stranger is a pivotal figure in most religious traditions.

In Judaism, the command to love the stranger appears twice in the Torah with the rationale that Jews were once strangers themselves under Egyptian rule. In other religions such as Hinduism and Christianity, the stranger is not only a mirror of our own humanity, but also an image of the divine. In the Upanishads, the Sanskrit atithi devo bhava translates to “the guest is as God.” The Gospel of Matthew preaches likewise: comforting the stranger, Jesus taught, is akin to ministering to God.

Strangers were mainstays in our house growing up. Mom liked it this way. “I always wanted four or five of you,” she told my brother and me, but with her marriage dissolved and her tubes tied she had no choice but to find meaning outside our nuclear family.

I think the emptiness created hallowed ground for hospitality. She’d ask strangers at the grocery store if they needed rides home. She’d tell beggars that she’d join them inside the store for a meal. And while Thanksgiving was still typically spent in the company of the familiar, the invitation to bring one of these strangers to the table was always extended. It was as if she believed that the more random the meeting, the more likely the meeting was God.

When I was old enough to start choosing for myself how to celebrate Thanksgiving, I went the traditional route of spending time with family, although traditional for my family meant snaking our way through a hotel buffet line or meeting up in the woods a weekend early to save money.

Rekindling my kinship with strangers

It wasn’t until my husband and I moved to Oakland, California in our mid-twenties that I found my kinship with strangers rekindled. Here lived a whole tribe of people devoted to alternative Thanksgiving traditions.

My favorite tradition was the “Orphan Thanksgiving” my friend put on every year. He worked as the business administrator at a Catholic parish, and since Thanksgiving was a national holiday but not a religious one, the church buildings were empty. So every year he invited a motley crew of folks whose rent was too high or whose motivation was too low to go home to celebrate the day together.

We played dodge ball in the adjacent gym beforehand. We broke bread together in the spiritual life center. There were young and old(er). There were rich and poor(er). There were former teammates and nemeses. There were also a lot of bottles of rosé, donated by a member of the church as a tax write-off. Wine tastes better when it’s free.

When we moved back East after a few years, I missed this creative commemoration. With most of our family in driving distance again, we fell back into predictable rhythms. My restlessness at our gatherings grew. It got so bad that I started wondering if it wasn’t time to have kids to liven things up a little. And I’m one half of a professed childless-by-choice couple. I tried other solutions.

Once, I invited a fellow writer who I’d never met to fly across the country to join my husband and me for an “Orphan Thanksgiving” of our own, but she found a community in which to celebrate locally and we found ourselves headed to his parents’ house again. It wasn’t even their year! We put a few feelers out to other friends to join us, but everyone else had plans.

Spare Thanksgiving for a stranger

So in lieu of finding needier friends, this year I want to celebrate Thanksgiving with a stranger or two for whom a big meal and a Lions win is a luxury. I want to invite them into my home — or better yet, be a stranger in theirs — so the conversation can cut through the catch-ups and into the curiosities about our hallowed lives.

I want to meet God in something more than a mealtime blessing — in a human heart. Maybe even mine. To welcome the “other” is not only an issue of justice, but also an empathetic practice by which we welcome the parts of ourselves that feel “other,” ostracized, or estranged from our culture.

It’s easy to forget that European Americans like me would have been the strangers at what’s traditionally called the first Thanksgiving. The Wampanoags were the true hosts. This was not a meal that celebrated old friends or blood relatives but the hope of reconciliation between people of difference.

Strangers, of course, are not always harbingers of hope. Our own history proves as much. When encountered in the context of community, however, there is potential for our collective faith to outweigh individual fears.

If you still enjoy your old friends and blood relatives as I do (promise Dad!), may I propose you devote the Christmas holiday to showing them gratitude. It’s hard enough gifting on point for my half-brother to add someone else to the exchange. But will you risk this with me? Spare Thanksgiving for a stranger.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Erin Lane
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