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The ideal Thanksgiving dinner

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 23, 2011

Turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce are essential; the rest is negotiable. Pecan pie, apple pie, or pumpkin pie? Whatever you prefer; you can’t go wrong.

But that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about the ideal meal, the perfect offering: the Eucharist.

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday, and I seize every opportunity to explain the feast to people from other countries and other cultures. The celebration of the harvest answers to a natural human impulse, not far removed from the impulse to worship. In the American tradition the two become one: We not only enjoy the fruits of the harvest but give thanks for them. Give thanks--to whom?

In the commercialized 21st-century version of the holiday that question goes unanswered. Thanksgiving is a day off work, a day of relaxation with the family (except perhaps for the cooks), a day to watch football games and the Macy’s parade. But the meaning of the feast goes far beyond that banality. The very name of the holiday sends a message. We are giving thanks. And to whom? Or rather, to Whom?

The answer is obvious. And to all but the most hardened secularists, it’s so very right. We all have so very much to be thankful for. We want—we need—to give thanks.

More than that: We need to give thanks not as individuals, but in a community. The Puritans understood that need. The opening words of the traditional hymn tell the story: “We gather together…”

So this is a communal meal, a shared expression of thanks, a feast of praise to our Creator. Put it in those terms, and it becomes evident that the Thanksgiving meal is an imitation of the Sacrifice that we celebrate as a community of faith in the Eucharist.

Thanksgiving dinner will be wonderful. It always is. We bask in the enjoyment—not only of the food, but also of each other. There’s a joy in the harvest, a joy in the family, and yes, a joy in the thanks. The celebration satisfies some deep, innate longings. Yet we know that we will feel those longings again soon—perhaps even before the pie is digested. Those impulses are natural and healthy, but we can never satisfy them completely until we share in the one great eternal banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Go to Mass on Thanksgiving morning. Better yet, go with your whole family. Before you sit down to carve the turkey, share in the one perfect meal, the one great everlasting sacrifice. If the Mass is celebrated in English, you can say—perhaps for the last time, before the new translation goes into effect on Sunday: "It is right to give Him thanks and praise."

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 23, 2011 8:54 PM ET USA

    Bravo! First time I have heard this illuminated so clearly.

  • Posted by: stpetric - Nov. 23, 2011 6:32 PM ET USA

    I always find a subtle satisfaction in the fact that Thanksgiving Day is appointed for a Thursday -- the day on which the Eucharist was instituted. And what does "eucharist" mean, but "thanksgiving"?