I was recently chatting to a friend here in Perth who also happens to be an American (though she has called Scotland home for nearly 20 years), and in this conversation, she said something that I myself have thought but have been too embarrassed to admit out loud. However, her admittance gave me the confidence to do so too: I find Costco comforting because it reminds me of home.
If you are wondering why I am embarrassed, then you clearly aren’t familiar with Costco. This supermarket, if you can even call it that, is a perfect example of American consumerism. Costco isn’t your average grocery store, it’s a massive warehouse that sells anything you could want. And I do mean anything. Groceries, obviously. Clothing, of course. How about saunas, grand pianos, treadmills, swimming pools and engagement rings? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. If you don’t believe me, ask Will. He describes his first experience of the cavern that is Costco as something like an existential crisis as he gazed on row upon row of stuff he never knew he needed stretching off into the distance. If you want to experience this, there is a one in Edinburgh. But be aware that at Costco you buy in bulk (i.e. 27kg tub of honey or a 60-count carton of eggs). So I’m not exactly proud of everything Costco is, and I can imagine that most people in the UK find bulk buying wasteful and well, just so American.
I’m going to explain in a moment why I find it comforting, but on a quick side note…Not all Americans shop at Costco. Not everything in Costco is giant. Many Americans have large families, and some rural living Americans are hours from the nearest supermarkets. So bulk buying is not only more affordable but saves on petrol costs since you won’t be driving the 200-mile roundtrip to the store as often. You can still hate on Costco if you want, but just wanted to throw that in there.
Anyways, Costco is comforting because it carries foods and brands that are common in American stores, but not usually carried in mainline UK supermarkets. In this particular case, my friend and I were gushing about our love of maple syrup and cans of pumpkin puree. Both of these items are particularly prevalent at this time of year in the States because they are common ingredients in traditional Thanksgiving fare. And if there is one thing I miss about America, it’s Thanksgiving (I bet you were wondering where this was going).
If you are interested in learning about the 1621 Thanksgiving it’s, well…complicated. I’m sorry to say that we actually know very little about it and sifting through historical fact and fiction is better left to qualified historians. However, we do know that only about 50 people were present. The brutality of the previous winter in New England had decimated the settlers, leaving more than half dead. Author and historian Robert Tracy McKenzie makes an excellent point when he says,
“That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and heavenly hope.”
The narrative of happy pilgrims being thankful for their bounty is likely more historical fiction than fact. So perhaps the question modern people should be asking is, why and how were they thankful? You see, for those who follow Jesus, regardless of whether they hail from the 17th century or the 21st, this particular holiday is actually far more meaningful than you might expect.
If we fast forward to modern-day America (and Canada, though they celebrate on a different day), we find a very different Thanksgiving with remnants of what Christians have made it over the centuries. The surplus of food and the ease at which it was acquired is a product of our 21st-century world. It’s the Costco effect. If we want something, anything, we can have it almost immediately and in whatever absurd quantity you can imagine. This is so different from the 1621 Thanksgiving. We all may be expressing thankfulness, but we are doing it out of our bounty and they out of their poverty. And just to be clear, I’m not here to make anyone feel bad about sitting around a bountiful table. In fact, I am in favor of it and am excited to be doing that very thing this Thanksgiving with my family in Montana.
The sheer amount of food is not the only difference between early Thanksgiving celebrations and today. I won’t be the first or last to point out one particular irony of American Thanksgiving, at least for the majority of those who celebrate it. We sit around the table and before we take part in the feast at hand, we say what we are thankful for and you might be surprised that even secular Americans are quite intentional about this tradition. Most people won’t stand up and proclaim thankfulness for frivolous things. No, on this day we reflect and are thankful for the things that are truly out of our control (being placed in our particular family, our health, the natural beauty of creation, etc). But the question is, who are we thanking? Champ Thornton puts it this way in his gospel coalition article The Irony of Thanksgiving,
“When non-Christians give thanks for all God has made, it’s the essence of irony. They enjoy his gifts and express thanks but deny the Giver.”
This is why, at its very core, Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday. As followers of Jesus, we know who is the creator of families, the sustainer of life, and the very one who marked out the foundations of the earth. We know to whom to give our thanks. And when we do so openly and honestly, we point our non-Christian family, friends, and neighbors towards the Giver.
Thanksgiving, and the holidays in general, can be a hard time of year for many people because while some are sitting around bountiful tables with everyone they hold dear, others have just received a cancer diagnosis. Still, others will be experiencing their first holiday season after the death of a loved one. And perhaps a few will be around that table but without the bounty. In other words, some Thanksgivings will look a whole lot more like that one in 1621. In God’s great wisdom, some of those suffering illness, death, and loss will be Christians. And like the Pilgrims, they will give thanks when the world doesn’t understand why or even how. But what could we be more thankful for than a God who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, a God that was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, a God who took our sin upon himself so that by his very wounds we would be healed? As Christians, our ability to give thanks in all circumstances is an incredible testimony to non-Christians. Unlike the Pilgrims, we live in an age of great abundance and privilege, but even we are not without hardship. And even though we do not formally celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, it is still good for Christians to intentionally acknowledge the Giver for all the good gifts he has lavished upon us. So can I encourage you to do that? Thank Him for all that you have (even if you bought it at Costco).
– Olivia Cottrell