“Mom, what is Thanksgiving?”
His question came from the backseat. I can’t recall what, exactly, I was talking about. Something around the upcoming holiday marked by pilgrims and turkeys and cranberry spread, I am sure, and that word caught his attention. His question caught my own.
I wasn’t sure at first whether or not to be upset at this—my six-year-old uncertain of what Thanksgiving is, one of the noblest holidays in my opinion, surrounding thankful hearts and acts of gratitude. And my son seemed oblivious. But I wasn’t upset, because I knew exactly where his curiosity stemmed from. We don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving, after all. We celebrate Turkey Palooza.
A smile spread across my face at my son’s question. The same smile that would return the next week, after reading a post on social media from my sister, about my five-year-old niece. She wrote:
“So we had a parent teacher conference with Hanna’s teacher last night. We started to talk about the class Thanksgiving plans and I went to apologize because Hanna might not associate with the word “Thanksgiving” and her teacher jumped right in “Oh we now know all about Turkey Palooza! That is all Hanna talks about and many of her daily journals are about Turkey Palooza!”
For the past eight years, starting from the first year my husband and I were married, to now with my sister married also, and five (going on six) grandkids in the mix, my family has celebrated Turkey Palooza—an entire week at a cabin full of family, games, an annual cooking competition, gift baskets, the kids annual “5k (five kids)” race, hiking, incredible food, lots of coffee, and even more laughter. And although the whole celebration is based around Thanksgiving, our kids know it as Turkey Palooza. And I don’t think I mind at all.
Looking back at my own childhood, Thanksgiving conjures up images of hiking and the outdoors. Cozy fireplaces. Yes, turkey, which I wasn’t too fond of anyways. But mostly slow time together as a family. Oh, and my dad’s homemade crepes.
Christmas to me is Petit Fours on fancy platters around the table in my grandparents’ dining room, late into the evening. It is Grandma crying over Christmas cards at the breakfast table, every Christmas morning. I can hear the emotion caught in her throat over Hallmark cards even now, nine years after her passing. It is driving through neighborhoods to catch Christmas light displays, and playing Silent Night on our psaltry, a Celtic stringed instrument at church.
As we walk into the holiday season, I think we all do well to take note of what memories our children attach to these special days. What are the smells, songs, books, and tastes that signal to them the changing of seasons, and the arrival of a special time? I think we’ll be surprised to find that it is often the smallest of things that matter the most to them throughout these holidays. And that when we focus on those “small” things, then the struggle for meaning dissolves. We find it there, in those small, holy, silent moments. In a smile, a snowflake balancing on the tip of a nose, rosy cheeks, steam over hot cocoa, and leaves crunching on the trail.
To children, the name or date on a calendar means little. To them, the holidays are found in the reflection on tinsel, the turkey-shaped butter, and Christmas cut-out cookies that no one knows the shape of but them. To them, these special days find their meaning in togetherness, not busyness. They’re not about the fanfare and expectations, but about the eerie, holy sound of carolers singing acapella on a doorstep. To children, the holidays are less about commercialism and more about holding hands and sitting close. And are not these the things we wish so badly to preserve within them, and reawaken within our own spirits?
To them, the holidays might not even be about the traditions. Although they look forward to certain dependable activities–gingerbread house making, gift basket opening, Christmas cookie decorating–sometimes it is the only-once activities that are what define the holidays for them. Like that one time you took them to the ice rink and for hot chocolate after. Or the one memory they hold of a Thanksgiving dinner you threw for neighbors and friends who had no family in town. Or the one year you trekked together into the woods to cut down your own tree. Or the only time you went to a performance of the Nutcracker.
Only one year did my husband’s family gather all together, his parents, four siblings, three of us daughter-in-laws, and 5 grandsons, and crowd into a horse-drawn wagon for a ride through the snow-laden Upper Peninsula of Michigan—one of my favorite Christmas memories. Sometimes the holidays are found in a one-time-only memory that stretches time to span over the years.
My kids don’t know what Thanksgiving is, but they know how to be thankful. And in those moments that I bend low and listen to their hearts, when I take note of the things rooted most deeply within them—the small things that are really the big things—I learn how to be thankful, too. So many times I find that it is not in the elaborately planned-for memories, but rather in the happen-chance moments, the ones that hold power to imprint themselves forever into the cement of our souls, and to define what these special days are really about.