Honoring the Land this Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law is hosting this year, and I’ve been asked to bring pies. We’ll have enough people there that we’ll need two pies, though I’m sure a lot of people will want to have a slice of each. This year I’m going to make a pecan pie and a pumpkin pie. The secret to making a good pie is a homemade crust made with butter and lard. This is no time to be worried about saturated fat, and I don’t think anyone there is a vegetarian. Butter tastes delicious, and lard is what makes the crust tender and flaky. Yum!

Last year I talked about how I have decided that Thanksgiving is a time for me to honor the North American land spirits. Here are some ideas I’ve come up with to incorporate that into the usual secular American celebration of turkey, pie, and football.

Incorporate sustainable ingredients into your feast.

My pumpkin pie will be made with pumpkins I grew myself in my garden. If you have a garden, try to make at least one dish incorporating something from your garden, even if it’s just sage from a potted sage plant on your balcony.

If you don’t have a garden, check out your local farmer’s market and see what they have for sale. Get some fruits or vegetables to make a dish from something locally grown. If you don’t know much about the kinds of things that are grown in your area or are in season right now, now is a good time to learn.

For the turkey, I highly recommend getting a free-range bird if you can afford it. You have not tasted turkey until you’ve tasted one that got to run around outside. Butterball turkeys have been bred to have such huge chest muscles they can hardly walk. Free-range turkeys are going to have less white meat and more dark meat, but I prefer dark meat anyway. But even the white meat of a free range turkey is much more flavorful than a Butterball. I think it’s worth it.

Burn off some calories with a hike in your local ecosystem.

Maybe you can do this with your family after dinner in a local park, or maybe you can take a trip to a state park on Black Friday. It probably won’t be very crowded since everyone else will be at the mall. Take a look at what’s happening in your local ecosystem. Are the trees changing color or losing their leaves yet? Here they’re just starting to turn color. The Cedar Elms and Western Soapberry are turning bright yellow, while the Texas Red Oaks and Flameleaf Sumacs are living up to their names and turning bright red. Those are mixed with Live Oaks and Ashe Junipers that stay green all winter.

Are there any migratory birds passing through your area on their way south? Since I live in Texas, this is south for a lot of migratory birds. There are several species I only see in the winter, like Orange-Crowned Warblers and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets. There are other species of birds, like most other warblers and the hummingbirds, that only live here in summer and go to Mexico or South America for winter. Then of course there are the cardinals, wrens, blue jays, and mockingbirds that are here year round.

Or maybe where you lived there’s already snow on the ground, the birds have left, and the remaining animals are hibernating.

If you don’t know how to identify your local trees or birds, maybe some field guides would be a good thing to put on your Yule wish list. Our ancestors had detailed knowledge about flora and fauna that many modern people have lost. There’s even a trend among professional biologists that knowing “natural history” isn’t important, which I discovered when I was in grad school. I think that’s a big shame. I don’t think you can fully appreciate something unless you can name it. It’s kind of like the old adage about how the Inuit have all these different words for “snow”. To most people a tree’s a tree. Once you learn to identify which tree is which, suddenly you notice so much more about all the amazing variations of what a “tree” can be.

Visit a museum or historic site to learn some real history.

This might be a good idea if the weather’s bad and you don’t feel like spending much time outside. Learn about the people who lived on the land before you. The Thanksgiving story we were taught in elementary school about Pilgrims and Indians at Plymouth Rock has been mythologized quite a bit, so maybe it’s time to learn about the real Native Americans and various immigrants who lived where you live now.

For example, where I live there was the Tonkawa tribe, and then they got conquered by the Comanches. Then there are all those missions around San Antonio that were built by the Spanish to convert the native people to Catholicism, so that today most Latinos (some of their families go all the way back to when Texas was still part of Mexico) practice a version of Catholicism with a lot of native flavor. A bunch of Germans and Czechs settled the Hill Country and did cool things like inventing Texas-style barbecue. Yes, Texas barbecue was invented by Germans, not cowboys. It was only a couple of years ago that I learned about how the Texas Germans signed a peace treaty with the Comanches, but were persecuted by Confederates during the Civil War because they didn’t support secession.

My point is there’s a lot of complicated stuff about history they don’t teach you in school. I think Thanksgiving is a good time to remember your “ancestors of place.” They may not be your blood ancestors (who are honored on Samhain/Halloween), but they left their mark upon the land where you now live, so that makes them important too. Archaeologists have even found Clovis points only a few miles from my house. Those points were used to hunt mammoths during the last Ice Age. The Clovis people where probably the first people to immigrate to North America (as far as we know) and they lived right here!

 

Well, those are just some of my suggestions. Modern American Pagans celebrate all these holidays that are taken from European traditions. We’re always looking across the Atlantic to our “ancestral homelands” for inspiration. Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time for us to remember that we’re the descendants of immigrants who left Europe and came to America, many because they thought America would be a better place to live than Europe. Don’t forget to give thanks to the land that gave your ancestors these new opportunities, and remember that you share it with the plants and animals and people who lived here before they got here.

And don’t forget that Thanksgiving is the one time of year where it’s permissible to have multiple pies in one meal. I have some baking to do now!

A Heathen Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is coming up.

I like Thanksgiving.

It’s one of the few holidays where a lot of people get time off work (when I worked at Barnes and Noble, the only days we were closed were Thanksgiving and Christmas), so that would seem to make it a big deal, but if you look at stores, there is much more Easter and Halloween merchandise than Thanksgiving, as it gets smashed between Halloween, and the behemoth of a holiday that is modern Christmas. But maybe that’s a good thing. Thanksgiving seems uniquely immune to commercialization. It’s really just all about the food. And I love food!

It’s also 100% secular. I have a friend who is Jewish and lives in the UK, and he’s told me he’s kind of jealous of Thanksgiving and wishes the UK had something like that. He says there aren’t a lot of holidays in the UK that both Jews and non-Jews can celebrate together. Thanksgiving isn’t a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Pagan holiday; it’s a holiday for all Americans. Everyone gives thanks.

Now, I know the Thanksgiving origin story is mostly mythical, and some Native Americans view Thanksgiving as a day of mourning. That’s up to them, but I prefer Columbus Day to fulfill that role (because Columbus was an asshole). At least the Thanksgiving myth is a happy myth, to remind us that not all interactions between Europeans and Native Americans were bad. Sometimes certain groups of European settlers and certain Native Americans did get along. If we remember that, I think it gives us hope that we can get along better in the future.

Since Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks, as a Heathen, who do I give thanks to?

I think it’s significant that all the traditional Thanksgiving food is native to the New World: turkey, cranberries, corn, potatoes, squash and pumpkins, sweet potatoes, pecans, and green beans. To me, that makes it obvious how Thanksgiving fits into a Heathen worldview: Thanksgiving is a feast in honor of the Land Spirits of America.

Honoring the spirits of the land is a traditional Heathen thing to do, so on Thanksgiving we feast on foods native to this land, to give thanks to the land for this bounty. Being relative newcomers to this land, it’s just good hospitality to give thanks to the spirits of the land we’ve settled on.

I don’t know much about my ancestors, but I think most of my ancestors came here from Europe relatively recently, in the 20th century. Obviously they came thinking they’d be better off here than back home, like so many other immigrants did. Thanksgiving is a time to remember why our ancestors came here to begin with, and be grateful they were able to make new lives for themselves here on another continent so far away from home.

It’s a time to remember how immigrants from all over the world have come here looking for a better life, and they still keep coming here to this day, and the mixing of all these different cultures is what makes this country so interesting. There seems to be a lot of anti-immigrant fervor around here lately, especially against Latino immigrants, which I always thought was ironic since Texas was part of Mexico before it was part of the United States. There are “Mexican” families here who go back all the way to that time. They’ve been here longer than my family has, that’s for sure. No one’s ever yelled at me to “Go back to Germany,” even though my mother was actually born IN Germany.

But since I’m a nature-worshiper, the main focus is honoring the land and nature spirits of America. Whenever possible, I try to make a dish out of something I grew and harvested myself. This year it will be sweet potato pie made of homegrown sweet potatoes. Yum!

Perhaps Thanksgiving would be a good time to learn more about your local bioregion, and the plants and animals native to where you live. Perhaps Thanksgiving is a good time to look into supporting local, more environmentally friendly agriculture.

Growing up in a nonreligious family, Thanksgiving was already a time for turkey and pie and football. Now that I’m a Heathen, I like having the opportunity to inject something a bit more spiritually significant into the holiday.

So on Thanksgiving I give thanks to the land itself, which has fed so many people. I also pray that people cease taking the land for granted, and remember how we depend on keeping it healthy for our survival.