During Thanksgiving holidays, I boarded a plane in Atlanta and headed across the pond to London. Our usual Thanksgiving celebration is to gather extended family and friends from both sides of the family at an ancestral log cabin in rural south Alabama. Since my husband’s last Navy cruise in 1990, this year was the first major holiday we had spent apart. (To his credit, he and our son carried on nicely with hosting duties with some good help from grandmothers and aunts.)
I had already planned the trip before the Paris attacks, and in the aftermath of that, despite the travel alerts that had us all skittish, I was both determined and grateful to go. Our daughter doesn’t finish her studies abroad until later in December and she couldn’t come home to be with us, so it was my job to take home and holiday to her.
We attended a Thanksgiving worship service at St. Paul’s Cathedral with over 2,000 other Americans. We sang all the Thanksgiving hymns familiar to us, were greeted by the American ambassador, and heard a message from a minister currently living in Surrey who is a native Texan. Though our host were thoroughly British (the ushers wore morning coats!), we Yanks were their guests of honor and their beautiful cathedral was ours for the morning. Security was everywhere outside, metal detectors, armed officers, bag searches – reminding us of the state of things in the world right now, but inside the church were welcoming smiles, greetings and warm hospitality from our mother countrymen.
My daughter found us a restaurant named Goat that was serving Thanksgiving dinner. We found it delicious irony to celebrate one of our country’s oldest traditions on a site which has housed a dining establishment with the word “goat” in its name for the last 350 years. They got the menu right: turkey, cornbread dressing with cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. The flannel shirts and cowboy boots and hats of the wait staff, along with the hay bales for seating and drinks with names like “The Dolly Parton” made with Wild Turkey had us both laughing and wondering about America’s reputation abroad. Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, and The Band crooned as background music while we dined, and we appreciated the Brits attempts, however comical, at making ‘home’ for us on our holiday. Even more comical the next morning were the throngs of shoppers at Black Friday sales in London. Who knew? America’s influence abroad! By mid afternoon, we abandoned the American shopping tradition and took up a British one – a proper tea. For two hours, we sat in a cozy spot, sipped tea and ate cucumber sandwiches and scones, and talked leisurely.
All these traditions, rituals and celebrations, tweaked by time and culture, have me thinking now about the importance of celebration as a practice. One might argue in the face of the Paris tragedy and now the San Bernardino shootings that celebrations aren’t appropriate, that rituals and traditions seem meaningless. I beg to differ. Our traditions ground us; they help us remember and they teach our young. Our liturgies anchor us to words when we are at a loss for our own. Our celebrations, whether a worship service, a turkey and dressing meal, a barn dance, or a Black Friday sale, remind us to be grateful, to find the good, to focus on it, to point others to it.
Yes, there is a time to grieve. There are times for prudence, caution, silence and inactivity. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us in the third chapter that “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Weep, laugh, mourn, and dance -all four verbs in the same sentence. There is a time to celebrate.
We are entering into one of the most celebratory times of the year. Ritual and tradition and opportunities to celebrate abound everywhere. I wrote a few weeks ago about love casting out fear. What is celebration but a ritual of love? We acknowledge our blessings with those whom we share our lives. We drive out fear every time we celebrate.
This week at my school the kindergarteners presented a Christmas program that has been virtually the same for about twenty years. The students and teachers alike love it because the songs are familiar and the speaking parts don’t change. The same three tiny kings walk the aisle with their gifts for the Christ Child. The camel and the dove sing their songs and the shepherds hold their crooks and the angels make their proclamations. The juniors and the seniors can still recite the lines they spoke when they were the five year old shepherds, angels, stable animals and holy family. We will close the week with a chapel of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Our French teacher prepares this every year with teachers reading the lessons and students singing the ancient hymns while she plays the organ for us. We look forward to it, maybe more than we realize, because it is the same every year.
The 24 hours cycles of news, mostly bad lately, will rob us of joy and cause us to fear if we let them. I choose to celebrate this season, to drive out fear and pessimism with acts of gratitude and celebration, to participate in every ritual and tradition that I know of that causes me to remember the blessings of this life and the love that I have been given.