When I used to think about Thanksgiving, images came to mind of too much food and of relatives I saw too infrequently to really know. I gave the real meaning of the holiday--gratitude for abundance--hardly any thought. All of that changed after my father died. Life seemed more fragile and precious and I wanted to savor each moment. Suddenly "family" took on a new meaning.Ironically, I had been creating rituals on a daily basis in my own life and helping others imbue their everyday moments and celebrations with intention. Since writing The Joys of Everyday Rituals and The Joy of Family Rituals I have been traveling around the world teaching workshops on using ritual to incorporate spirituality into daily life. Now I wanted to turn our Thanksgiving into a conscious holiday--one in which I not only pondered the food and the guest list, but why we were getting together as well. How could we create a real day of gratitude, with spiritual as well as physical rewards, a day that would bring our family closer together? Members of our tribe had gone through divorce, experienced loss, and one had come out as a lesbian. Our holiday needed to be a living monument to family, diversity, forgiveness and acceptance.Since we were spread out across the United States, My brother Mark offered to host our celebration at his wonderful home in Vermont. We could have a country holiday with room for hiking, skiing (if the weather permitted) and a warm fire. Everyone thought it was a fabulous idea and we began to sculpt our day of connection.
All were invited- cousins, ex spouses, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, even childhood friends of my father (totaling about 30 people) -and each person contributed generously and participated in whatever way he or she could. My niece elected to make her version of sweet potatoes and my ex-sister-in law baked bread. Creativity flourished as my cousin Millie created a cranberry orange mouse while my son concocted an exotic salad. It is a magical experience to be with family and to prepare food with love and the intention of nurturing one another. Order soon arose out of chaos in the kitchen, and everyone became a part of a day that we all embraced with wonder. Those who did not cook made decorations with dried flowers and gourds, helped set up the tables and ran to the store for last minute essentials.Before dinner was served, I asked each person talk about what had mattered most to them in the past year and to share what they felt most grateful for. We passed around a plate of votive candles and each one lit a candle as they spoke.To be honest, I was not sure that everyone would get into the spirit. This wasn't one of my workshops. I had no way of knowing how various people would react when I asked them to share so intimately and be so vulnerable. I was in for a wonderful surprise. Everyone joined in with a generosity of spirit and heart that was incredible to see. Even though most people focused on broad concepts such as health, love, family and friends, the spirit behind it was sincere and deeply meaningful.
After we shared, I lit a candle for those who no longer were with us, except in spirit. Tears were shed for our losses, but a feeling of real community and connection bound us together as never before. After dinner, we told stories, laughed, sang, and danced. Some of us went outside and looked at the stars. Magic was alive in the dark Vermont night. We had created sacred space that allowed us to share from our hearts.
That first Thanksgiving dinner began a deep healing that preserved the best of what there was in our family and called out the best of what we could create-- and none of us has ever been the same. Each year we continue the tradition in Vermont, joyfully incorporating new additions to our extended family. Although we live in different parts of the country we have created a new closeness and find comfort in the knowledge that we never have to feel alone. As we maintain this ritual, year after year, we enrich the fabric of our lives, strengthening the threads that bind us to the past and lead us into the future.
Barbara Biziou is the author of The Joys of Ritual (St. Martin's Press) and The Joy of Family Rituals (St. Martin's Press). Her website is joyofritual.com.