Thanksgiving is a time for thanks — everyone knows that.
But it’s also a time for blessings and prayers. Local clergy members aren’t sure everyone knows the tradition.
It’s a simple one. Friends and family gather for the autumn holiday dinner in late afternoon or early evening. Before turkey, green beans, squash, mashed potatoes and dressing are served, someone offers words of thanks or prayers for the autumn bounty.
Pastors like the Rev. Priscilla Richter, who leads the Unitarian Universalist Society in Schenectady, believes words should precede the celebration.
“Gratitude is an important part of our theology,” Richter said. “Who was it that said, ‘No man is an island?’ We are dependent on other people, loved ones, people who support us in any environment — our neighbors, our friends, the grocer, the fisherman. We exist because we are interdependent of others. And not only with others, but with ecological systems. So gratitude is foundational in our approach to the world and how we live in it. Thanksgiving is a big deal for us.”
Richter believes appropriate words are easy to find. An appointed dinner spokesman or spokeswoman just has to give thanks to the people who made the food and fellowship possible.
Richter added that some Unitarians will avoid words like “prayers” or “blessings.” “Expressions,” she said, might be a better way to describe the short speeches they will give before meals.
And while the words are important, Richter believes group sessions are the most important things at Thanksgiving.
“Gathering and being with each other is bigger than the dinner, the football games or, now, the shopping,” Richter said.
The Rev. Vernon A. Victorson, interim executive director of the Capital Area Council of Churches in Albany, believes people shouldn’t be nervous or shy about saying a few words of grace.
“There’s plenty of material out there for all sorts of types of prayers,” said Victorson, former pastor of First Lutheran Church in Albany. “Somebody might just tell the story of the first Thanksgiving.”
Words are part of Victorson’s Thanksgiving.
“Sometimes we gather for some sort of prayer or grace. Sometimes it’s something where we go around the room and everybody says one thing they’re thankful for. Or it could be something we prepare ahead of time,” he said.
The Rev. Jo Page, interim co-pastor at Emmanuel-Friedens Church in Schenectady, said prayers of Thanksgiving are formal parts of services in the prayers in the Baptist and United Church of Christ church. “The act of Thanksgiving is part of the act of worship,” Page said. “When we pray before we eat, it’s kind of like we’re bringing that sense of worship to the table, that sense of gratitude.”
For people who take the dinner greeting and blessing seriously, coming up with the right words can be difficult.
“It’s totally nerve-racking,” Page said. “It’s nerve-racking for me, and it’s my job. But it’s different for your family — I think it’s more nerve-racking. You don’t want to be too holy or too counseling-sounding. You want to be sincere.”
Like Victorson, Page can back contributions from everyone seated at the dinner table. “That way, there’s no pressure on one person,” she said. “Ideally, we would be thankful before all our meals. Thanksgiving is that one time of the year we tend to verbalize them more.”
Sometimes, a prayer or blessing can come with a prop. At Glenville’s Trinity Presbyterian Church, rolls were distributed during a pre-Thanksgiving service in 2012. A suggestion for a holiday grace — a thank you — came with the roll.
“The invitation was particularly for people who were going to be with family or friends, that they could bring the roll with them and basically break the bread and offer the prayer of communion and share it around the table,” said the Rev. Tim Coombs, church co-pastor. “It would be likened to or give a sense of familiarity with communion at church, but it would just be a sharing of bread, a kind of ritual they could do around the table.
“Many people were most appreciative of having that reason to share and offer grace,” Coombs added. “It kind of gave them an excuse to do so. I said, ‘You could say my pastor said I was supposed to do this.’ ”
Coombs believes words are important at Thanksgiving.
“According to our understanding, all we have is a gift from God,” he said. “It is fitting at the moment we are going to enjoy the blessings of food that we give thanks to the Creator.”
Giving thanks, Coombs believes, should happen at every meal.
“We believe it ought to be a ritual at meals, that we take time to give thanks for what we have,” he said. “And not just for the food, but for the people gathered around the table with us and all the other blessings we enjoy.”
Bread is also part of Thanksgiving at St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church in Schenectady. Sister Marie Rosa Querini and her helpers bake bread during the early morning hours. Each person at the Thanksgiving morning service receives a loaf.
Out of the habit
Father Richard Carlino, pastor of both St. Anthony’s and St. John the Evangelist Church, believes people might not want to say words of thanks because they could be called religious fanatics. But it doesn’t have to be that way — a prayer can be simple.
“I would say something like, ‘Boy, it’s so nice we are here today and we have something to eat today. Let’s take a moment to thank God for our blessings when two-thirds of the world goes to bed hungry,” Carlino said.
Father James McDonald of St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Niskayuna said his church has made short prayers available on cards that people can easily use at group events. He believes many have abandoned the tradition of a blessing before supper.
“I think people have gotten out of the habit of eating together around the table,” he said. “I think that’s strange enough, let alone the blessing.”
McDonald hopes people might use the holiday season to resume words of thanks for other dinners and gatherings.
“I think people know what they’re thankful for,” McDonald said. “It’s just to whom they give thanks that might be a bit more vague. Many people are giving thanks not only for the food on the table but for the family sitting around the table and living in this country.”
McDonald added that Thanksgiving is probably one of the only combined religious-national holidays in America. “I think a large part of giving thanks is to live in this country where we can go to bed at night and not have to worry about bombs coming down on our heads,” he said.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.