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In my family, we argue over the correct stuffing for the turkey.

Among my earliest memories of Thanksgiving, is my dad, in his pajamas, spooning a mixture of raisins and cooked white rice into the body cavity of a raw turkey at some impossibly early hour on Thanksgiving morning. He would then, with Mom’s help, sew the turkey up with crude stitches of butcher’s twine using the biggest needle we had. The turkey would then go into the oven and cook so that it would be ready after church.

My cousins would come over and we’d all be there in the overly warm kitchen when the roasted turkey would come out looking and smelling savory-delicious.

Sometimes the skin would split or the seam would open and the stuffing itself would brown a little and this was the best part. The rice would absorb the savory flavor of the turkey meat and the raisins would swell in the steam, becoming soft and round, somewhere in that middle space between the raisin we all know and the grape that it used to be and if you scored a bit of the stuffing with the caramelized rice – well, you had extra reason to be thankful.

My bi-monthly Thursday slot on the blog means I get to write for our readers when I’d bet that most of them have some version of the US’s Thanksgiving Holiday on their minds.

The holiday is fraught though. Native American Christian scholars like Mark Charles and Randy Woodley have written critically about the holiday because of the popular mythology surrounding it. That of benevolent Indians helping pious white settlers survive in a new land and the whole ironic “let’s throw a party to celebrate this new land we discovered” vibe.

The mythology lays a pietistic sugary gloss over a horrific real history of dispossession, white-supremacy, and dehumanization of native peoples – with a strong component of protestant Christianity as an ideological driver. I remember, at Hudsonville Christian School, making pilgrim hats out of black construction paper and cutting fringes into paper grocery bags to make “Indian” vests so we could act out some version of it.

The wisdom of our Native American kin should be honored and contemplated. And I would add, since I must, that to the extent that our Thanksgiving becomes a celebration of consumption and excess in a world racing towards 1.5C over the pre-industrial baseline, it’s worse than counterproductive. It’s obscene.

Well, what then? By the time you read this, I will have re-enacted my memories of my dad on Thanksgiving morning and I’ll bet that most readers are celebrating as well. I woke today thinking about re-engineering Thanksgiving – since the impulse to thank the Creator has unassailable virtue once you strip away the baggage larded onto it.

Randy Woodley writes:

We should begin by realizing that Thanksgiving in America didn’t begin with the Pilgrims. For thousands of years feasts of thanksgiving have been characteristic of our Indian people. This has never ceased. While I do not advocate we replace them with the dominant Thanksgiving myth, I still don’t want to give up any type of festival of thanksgiving to the Creator — not even Thanksgiving Day. Why? The answer is simple. Everything we have comes from God. We should always give thanks — for everything! I think our indigenous ancestors would agree with this point.

Author Robin Wall Kimmerer devotes a chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass (2013, Milkweed Editions) to a meditation on the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address. In the address, the people give thanks individually to many discrete elements of creation, simultaneously recognizing their agency – before giving thanks to the Creator. It is, as Kimmerer writes, an exercise in intention, naming the elements and naming the people’s connections and dependencies, before thanking the Creator.

This aligns perfectly with RJ contributor Tom Boogaart’s discussion of the radical contingencies that bind us to the Creator (and to each other) though our immediate and intimate dependence on a dynamic creation. Not just our physical selves but our emotional and intellectual and spiritual selves as well. All of it dependent on nutrients cycling, water chemistry, microbial digestion, photosynthesis, the physics of oxidation, the sunset over the Big Lake (always capitalize), pollinators and poets and on and on and on. . . Every mouthful, every breath, every memory is a manifestation of the Creator’s love delivered and translated through the richness of creation.

Kimmerer contrasts the weekly reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in her local public school with the weekly reciting of the Haudenosaunee address in a nearby reservation school and captures in a vignette an ominous truth about this moment in history. In the latter, students develop what she calls a culture of gratitude and I try to imagine how that transforms and inspires, or could.

In my family’s arguments over stuffing, I lost. The half-animated zombie raisins proved too much (too gross) and I can’t remember anything other than bread-based savory stuffing in the past decade or so. But the point was never to win and triumph and indeed the argument surfaces every time we gather. It’s shorthand. A stand-in for a common experience and link to family and memory – for connection.

Take that theme and run with it today. As you prepare. As you celebrate. Make time to imagine yourself connected to your ancestors and then to the web of other beings whose presence or activity enables you to be you. Imagine where your potato grew, how the soil microbes nourished it. Imagine the wetland where your cranberries ripened and the geology that holds the water at the surface. Imagine the earth, now tilting away from the sun in the northern hemisphere and how that signals the summer birds to fly south and the winter birds to begin visiting your feeder. Imagine that breath that you just took, its oxygen outgassed by the cedar in your backyard – its internal machinery fueled by sunlight. Imagine the frog in the woods nearby, freezing and dehydrating itself into winter dormancy, like the maple in your yard, so they both can sing for you when spring returns. Imagine you sifted your bare fingers through the cold soil and hot blood. Imagine their smell.

And give thanks.

First Thanksgiving: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain
Turkey: James from Boulder, Wikimedia Commons, License.
Fall prairie: Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Helen Luhrs says:

    Great reminder. And I make stuffing with raisins!!

  • Tom Boogaart says:


    Thank you especially for the the final paragraph. When we take the time to look at the world around us, to look past the surface into its depths, we see that all is connected and that the world is ablaze with energy. The deeper we go the more everything converges, the deeper we go the closer we come to the source, the closer we come to a God that so many fear is absent.

    • Fred Mueller says:

      My sentiment exactly. Tim’s writing always uplifts, challenges, illuminates, etc. But this one, this final paragraph draws us down deep into the mystery and majesty of life I for one would not have considered without Tim for a guide.

  • Lena says:

    I’m ok with the Thanksgiving “myth”. Other cultures have their myths or somewhat embellished truths. That the Pilgrims made it through their first year in North America with the help of the First Nations people is a nice story. The “Welcome the Stranger” hospitality that many churches emphasize did not work out so well for Native peoples in the long run, but thanking the animals, sun, moon and other “relatives” is not necessary for us as Christians. The pilgrims knew who to thank, and so do we as Christians, in a land where all kinds of beliefs (except Christianity) are becoming more appealing to our people. God has blessed us with sp many blessings, and I’m fairly confidant that most Americans do know the difference between material blessings and the true blessings not related to money. For us in the Reformed faith, our spiritual inheritance is something to be thankful every day and especially on this day that is set aside to be Thankful. ⁶

  • Keith De Witt says:

    I’m reading this from a deer blind. I enjoyed it until you had to bring up climate change. And i love raisins but not in my turkey.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Good luck today, Keith! I am in the woods too. I also love raisins. No one likes to think or talk or write about the climate crisis, but its important that we do. Its literally the context of our collective future and the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren (and the rest of creation) depends on our ability to adress it.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank you Tim, for telling the truth. The Christian myth attempts to cover genocide.
    I am grateful you named it, because it calls us to face reality, and repent accordingly.

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    As a small girl, whenever my mom pulled out a white enamel double boiler from the cupboard, I knew we were having rice and raisins for supper. Yuck! I dreaded it.

    Today, the thought of white rice, plump raisins, a ribbon of butter and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar makes my mouth water. We were such idiots as kids, not wanting to try anything different.

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