My Journey Of Learning How To Have A Moral Thanksgiving

By Aimee Thunberg

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It celebrates the three things I value most in this life — family (original and chosen), abundant gratitude, and sharing good food with others — and is cause for deep personal reflection and renewed commitment to moral courage.

When I was in elementary school, we learned the story of the first Thanksgiving. You know the one. The brave “Indians” invited the starving, struggling, immigrant Pilgrims to share a meal. Everyone was thankful (and full, full thanks to the seeds and farming knowledge of the indigenous people) and happy.

I chose to be an Indian for our re-created Thanksgiving meal in the school cafeteria/auditorium. I relished the feeling of teaching and welcoming these newcomers. We’d make cornbread together and talk about which apples make the best pie. That was when my love of cooking and sharing food took root.

Fast forward to my twenties, when the holiday took on holy meaning. I was managing the media ministry of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, the oldest church in America – dating back to 1628, when Dutch settlers founded it.

Each year, Marble did “A Thanksgiving Trialogue,” a service that featured a minister, imam, and rabbi in conversation about a core tenet to each of the Abrahamic faiths, usually gratitude. We would broadcast this interfaith service on AM radio and it would air on cable television nationwide. The responses we would get from listeners and viewers were heartwarming. People were transformed with a renewed understanding of the “other.”

But the real transformation was seen in those who gathered for the post-service brunch in the church basement. For so many, this was their first (and sometimes the only) experience of breaking bread with someone of a different faith tradition. In that shared experience, we were one people united in gratitude.

I didn’t think it got much deeper or profound than that!

Yet, it did. Much more powerful than I could have imagined.

Years later, as a communications staffer at Slow Food USA, I learned what this holiday really meant. And I learned it the hard way.

I approached my Thanksgiving campaign planning with all my love of food, family, and gratitude wrapped in global Slow Food values of “good, clean, and fair food for all.” I began to ask farmers, chefs, activists and food anthropologists for favorite ingredients, recipes, and conversation starters that would make for the best Thanksgiving ever.

What I heard in those conversations changed my Thanksgiving experience forever.

The revisionist history of Thanksgiving fell away. I began to confront my Dutch and European heritage, hearing the Native American perspective of the holiday and stories about the many massacres over land ownership that often resulted in victory “Thanksgiving” feasts.

As a result, I continue to question what really is “history” (the facts about the past), versus “heritage” (the stories passed down through generations), what what my relationship is to power and privilege, and what true solidarity with the oppressed means.  

I went deeper (and simpler) in menu planning, incorporating more locally sourced and native ingredients as I explored our nation’s regional harvest celebrations. Now living in the Hudson Valley, I include as many varieties of indigenous apples as I can find at the farmers market. And I wholeheartedly thank and praise the farmers who are growing them instead of the commercial darlings like the Honeycrisp. They are keeping tradition alive in the face of consumerism.

The holiday has new meaning for me now, as I struggle to choose history over heritage to create the holy day that I believe Thanksgiving can and should be.

How do I do that? Thanks to the encouragement and support of my Auburn and Slow Food colleagues, I…

  1. Use deep listening to bridge political and ideological divides between my views and experiences and those of my loved ones. Instead of focusing on promoting my progressive values, I listen and ask questions to understand how others experience what’s happening in our nation and the world. Then I look for ways to connect the dots.
  2. Teach my toddler daughter the stories, customs, and traditional dishes that are integral parts of Northeast Native American culture. Moreover, I encourage her to cherish difference and see in each stranger the potential for a new friend.
  3. Say the following prayer (h/t to John Forti, the Heirloom Gardener and champion of indigenous foods) before the meal, to connect our plates to the planet:

For the earth, air, fire and water;
For the seasons, and the directions of the compass;
For the phases of our lives, and those that came before us;
For those who did not pave the way, but instead, cultivated it;
For those that saved the seeds of a better future,
And acted as stewards of our resources and inheritance,
A legacy of waterways, woodlands, fields and farms.

An inheritance of seasonal observations, life skills, holiday customs, recipes for nourishing foods,
deep connections and life passages that anchor us in a sense of place, stewardship and community.
A celebration in what we have learned thus far, and where we are going.

So I offer this humble prayer to the Native and the immigrant.
For the seacoast and the soil, the seeds and roots,
and the farmers who renew tradition with each passing season.
For the farmers market and the holiday table, our family and friends,
and the kinship that comes from celebrating renewal for our changing landscape and nature!

What are you doing to have a moral Thanksgiving? 

Aimee Thumberg is Vice President for Communications at Auburn. 


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