Sacred Journeys – A Classic ThanksgivingKim Elkington October 1, 2003
I found myself this Thanksgiving holiday tucked away in the Laurentian’s re-united with extended family from many parts of the globe. Some spoke French, some preferred Arabic, or English. And my sisters’ children, who are growing up in Israel right now, would talk away to each other using the Hebrew they speak at school, which none of the adults could understand. My brother-in-law’s family are North African and Safardic Jews, so there was celebration of Yom Kippur taking place as well as Thanksgiving. The grandfather rocked with his white shawl as he read from a Hebrew bible. His wife kept us full with dozens of Moroccan dishes on the table, most dressed with cucumber or mint. As many of us were distracted getting the seven small children happy and focused on their food, suddenly the men would sing along with the prayer and piles of challah bread would appear by my plate. Here was a long-standing tradition.
Likewise there was interest in understanding the nature of Thanksgiving as we celebrate it here. I introduced them to cranberries and gravy, which I think was a hit with a few of the kids, but the older African palettes found it far too mild. We laughed about it.
Although food is often at the heart of any celebration, the real focus about this time of year has a distinctly Canadian character. It is a non-denominational sharing of gratitude and respect for nature’s gifts that will keep us warm and fed in the winter.
While stories of Middle Eastern religions take place against a backdrop of climates where there is no season, stories of North American spiritual traditions take place against a backdrop of changing seasons. As Canadians give thanks for our harvests, we are gifted with memories of colourful autumn leaves to warm our hearts during winter, when nature paints the canvas back to white. I vowed that I would get the kids outside and, hopefully, help them to connect to the beauty and spaciousness which permeates and inspires the Canadian spirit of their Mom’s side of the family.
The first move was easy. These children are surrounded by beautiful plants and warm deserts where they live in the Middle East, but not with a lot of opportunity to sneak out at night and gaze up at the stars while floating in a canoe on a pristine northern lake. So that is what we did. I was able to share stories about the Pleiades, Taurus, the Dippers and Bears and Sirius. We floated there, and drank in the star light, very quietly. Then we were drawn to feel the water holding us afloat; water made of millions of raindrops that could nourish us forever. We felt her thickness, her wetness, and her safety. I said a native prayer to give thanks for the Moon, the stars, the water, and started to thank our ‘four-legged’ relations, when the wolves began singing as the moon rose on the horizon. The children were caught in the spell and for that I gave thanks.
The magic continued next day as we negotiated who got to go on a walk with Auntie Kim (ah, basking in their affection felt fabulous too!). The girls were first. They seemed drawn to the colours of the leaves and shapes of dried plants so we focused on herbs and their uses. They collected one or two of each plant to make a Thanksgiving centerpiece for the large dining table. I taught them how to leave an offering, or more simply, just say ‘thank you’. They would run up to me in the days that followed and ask me if something in their hand had a spirit. My favourite was when the older of the two arrived with a dying leaf and asked if that leaf was alive. When I affirmed in the positive, she shot me a big smile and shouted to anyone who might be listening, ‘I knew it!’
The boys wanted to find wolves and snakes. So I talked to them about closing their eyes and calling the animals to them. Sure enough they saw three snakes within an hour, which was no small feat since there had been snow on the ground a week earlier. Then we discovered the early morning track of a deer that was being followed by a wolf. The boys in turn added their own foot prints as we traced the route of animals ahead of us.
When they returned to the house they asked to be read to about deer, wolf and snake in the Medicine Card books. The boy who had been most focused on calling in the snakes had just gotten out of the hospital, having had a burst appendix. Snake medicine people, the book suggested, transform poison like the appendix does, adding they are rare people. He was filled with a sense of a secret power he might have to communicate with snakes. He seemed to think his Auntie had lots of secret powers too, which I was a little thankful for.
Later on, as the kids watched their father, relaxed, canoeing down the lake, framed by the blazing red, orange and yellow leaves, surrounded also by the multi-lingual chatter of people who loved them, I was thankful for their experience of a classic Canadian Thanksgiving.