On Thursday nights, I teach a conversational English class at the local library. The class is for adult second language speakers who want to practice their English skills with native speakers. We discuss holidays, traditions, idioms, anything of interest. The class is informal. Students just drop in. Last week was my last class before the holidays. Only one student showed up, an older Russian gentleman, a former Soviet scientist, who left his native country over twenty years ago. Since it was just the two of us, we talked about current politics, the Cold War, and the differences between Americans and Russians. At the end of class, he asked: “I can call you friend, right?” “Of course,” I assured him. He has been coming to this class for over two years. Then he said: “I love America!” He told me that life was better here, that Americans didn’t realize how wonderful our lives were. Then he wished me a Happy Thanksgiving.
I have been thinking about what my student and friend said. Over the years, I have heard many stories from people who have immigrated and the hardships they left behind. But this is not an essay on immigration. Instead I want everyone to think about the wonders of our great nation. Tomorrow we give thanks for our blessings, our family, our friends, our community. But sometimes in the preparation for tomorrow’s feast, we forget why we have this holiday.
In our national mythology, the first settlers celebrated after their first harvest to give thanks for survival in a new land. In the first years as a nation, several presidents including George Washington (but not Thomas Jefferson) proclaimed a national day of prayer and thanksgiving, but even though Sarah Joseph Hale (who also wrote “Mary had a Little Lamb”) campaigned to establish a national day of Thanksgiving for almost three decades, the tradition of a national holiday does not begin until the Civil War. After the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November a public day of Thanksgiving. This is a day to be thankful that we are a nation.
We are a diverse nation. We are a vast nation. Today the snow is falling outside my window and from the other side of the country, my son- in -law texts a screen capture of the weather in LA: 84 degrees. I am making the same dishes that I have served at Thanksgiving for the past twenty years or more because my family expects them. You may be making something different. We are a nation of different opinions, different traditions, different tastes, different attitudes, and different landscapes. Yet we are a nation.
As a result, the song stuck in my head this week is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” And so I leave you with some photos of our great nation. Be thankful for what we have.