An Orange at Thanksgiving
The boy was clutching an orange while he walked along the dirt road. He was wearing a dingy short sleeve shirt, tattered in more than a few places, hanging loose above his ragged dungarees.
But the orange was like the sun to him. He smiled at it, lifting it to his gaze once in a while as he almost skipped in his beat up shoes, sockless, on the side of the road.
Looking at him, you wouldn’t know it was Thanksgiving morning in Depression-era Mississippi.
“Son,” the grownup called out from behind, who had been watching him for a few minutes, puzzled by the boy’s enthusiasm that didn’t match the dreariness of the weather or the current events. “Son,” he said again when the boy stopped and turned around, “What are you so happy about?”
“Sir, I got here this orange from the good folk at church this morning …”
“Well, I hope you’ll enjoy it then,” the man said, who was on his way to his own family’s Thanksgiving Dinner.
“Oh, no, sir. This orange is for my sister and my mama. It’ll do them glad today, ‘cuz they ain’t had somethin’ like this for a real long time.”
I was told that this story is a true one when I heard it on the radio decades ago. I’ve never forgotten it because it is beautiful, and it shames me in a good way.
It makes me remember that Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks in the first place.
And it makes me think that our modern problem about Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the Sundays and holidays is simply this – and hold on to your hats, because this will surprise you:
In America, we’ve forgotten how to feast.
No, I didn’t say that we’ve forgotten how to stuff ourselves, what with food and new things and angry opinions. Heaven knows we Americans have a Ph.D. in that kind of stuffing.
No, our refrigerators are full and we’ve got entertainment galore and all kinds of choices and things that get us mad.
But we don’t know how to feast anymore, how to sit down and be happy just doing nothing, spending time and remembering and talking about good things together. And not leaving the table for hours on end.
Nowadays, everything has to show its practical worth (or “instrumental value”). Every activity is expected to show results.
In this sense, feasting is worthless. In the framework of bottom-line economics, feasting is a waste of time. It is hardly entertaining in the “thrill” or “rush” sense of the word. No one gets ecstatic at a slow-moving dinner with genial conversation and a few happy songs – winning the World Series or the Superbowl, or going to a megachurch concert with a signs-and-wonders preacher will get you the stuff of thrills and enthusiasm.
But a feast is too slow-paced, too gentle, too humane.
Thanksgiving is an American remembrance of what feasts ought to be like – a dinner of giving thanks, a bright moment that reminds us of the greater Feasts of the Church Year. And by this I don’t mean only Christmas and Pascha – I mean every single Sunday, which in reality is a little Pascha, a heartbeat of the Resurrection.
Don’t you remember the old Sundays? Getting washed up, wearing your best, going to Liturgy, then home? And in the afternoon, the aroma of roast chicken wafting down the porch steps and into the street, halupki, mashed potatoes, and the young and the old joining at the table, talking, remembering? Someone playing the warm and a little scratchy LPs of Sinatra, Martin, maybe Johnny Cash?
No work on that day, for sure. Nothing taking you away from the family table, or from the Table of the Lord – the real Eucharist, the major Thanksgiving every Sunday.
Yes, things are different now, and you know what? They shouldn’t be. In this secular age, we are made to think that things are just “there,” that stuff just “happens.” John Milbank, a Christian philosopher at the University of Nottingham, writes “the idea that natural necessities, essences, inherent formal meanings and so forth arrive only … as ‘gift’ from God is lost sight of. Instead, one has a doubly arid givenness without hint of generosity or gratitude” (Beyond Secular Order, 2013).
What should things be like at Thanksgiving? Everything that is real should be seen as a generous gift from God. And for this everything, we are grateful. We give thanks.
But in this anti-religious world of “it is what it is” (i.e., arid givenness) or “stuff just happens,” there is no recognition of divine generosity. There is no life of gratitude.
I’m tired of that culture of secular grayness, that misery of meaningless. I’m weary of holy days being displaced by just about anything else. It sucks the life from our youth. It turns old age away from hope, and inflicts it with worry and contempt.
Milbank says that the modern age is only interested in the how’s and when’s, the where’s and what’s of reality. Science tells us about the what’s. History tells us about the when’s. Technology explains the how’s. The evening news reports on the where’s.
But no one tells us why. No one who is secular is interested in why the snow falls and the clouds race through the winter sky. No one who adopts science as a religion (and a poor one at that) cares about the bouncing joy of a terrier when he greets you at the door, or about the mystical event of a smile forming on the lips of a tiny infant who just might be witness to an exultation of angels.
Why? And why do we ask “why “ about only tragic things, when the better “why” is better asked about the good things that the good God gives in abundance, Who only gives good things?
At my grandmother Lena’s table, she told us about the green beans she planted and nurtured, the very ones laid out on our dinner plates. She told us about the apples that she peeled and cored, the trees they came from, and how she rolled out the dough and how the water for the flour had to be ice cold.
Everything at the table had a meaning. Everything had a beginning, a form and an end. Everything had a purpose. Everything had a “why.”
Everything was a gift.
So, I suggest in this Holy Day Season of Thanksgiving and Christmas that you really, really Feast, and Feast well. Stay out of the box. Make your own gravy. Roast your bird long and good. Peel and mash. Use real cranberries with orange marmalade. Love the time in the kitchen. Love the table. Love your guests.
Remember and sing (Za Spivajme), laugh, and be sentimental, and linger long at the Feast.
Yes, I remember now the story’s end of that poor boy with the orange.
The man watched him climb the rickety porch steps of the rundown shack, running in through door, shouting for his sister and mama.
Then he, too, climbed the same steps, knocked on the door.
The boy opened it and smiled – behind him were a prematurely-aged woman, peeling the orange, and a little girl at her shoulder, breathing in every scent of Florida in gray November.
“Hey, sir, do you need somethin’?”
“Why yes, son, I do … I need you, and your mama, and your sister. Go ahead and eat that orange … And when you’re done, I’m taking you to my house, because my missus roasted way too much turkey and sweet potato and pecan pie today, and we really need y’all to help put it away.
“Go ahead,” the man said, “I’ll just wait.”
He did. They came. And they all remembered the Thanksgiving joy of the Feast that day. And they remembered, together, that all good gifts surround us, are sent from heaven above.
Here, have yourself an orange. And give thanks.