My first encounter with Thanksgiving came in 1991 just weeks after my move to the United States. Growing up in England I did not experience this most American of festivals. My meagre endeavors to explain that, “Yes” we do celebrate thanksgiving in England – on July 4th – seem inadequate to describe something so profoundly important as a simple remembrance of the one from whom we have so much to be grateful. But after all, we Brits are grateful that because of 1776 we do not share in a thirty trillion-dollar national debt.
That first November in America I was delighted to receive an invitation from a member of our board of directors to dine with him and his family. The simplicity and the solemnity of a meal filled with laughter and conversation expressed around a moment of deep gratitude impressed me. My introduction to Thanksgiving helped make it ongoing, one of the most meaningful of celebrations.
Similarly, my first encounter with St. Patrick’s Day followed my arrival in America. His Saints Day along with many things Irish were not worthy of recognition in the Protestant England of my childhood. Indeed, the activities of the Irish Republican Army during “The Troubles” did not endear the nation to the sentiments of a Unionist and pro-Loyalist nation. So, it was to my surprise when I walked into a Hallmark Cards store in Fort Pierce, Florida, early in March of 1991, to discover a blaze of green and a field of plastic clover. Rounding an aisle in search of a thank-you card for my hosts I was confronted by a petrified expression on the face of a little boy. For rising from the ground between us was a helium-filled Leprechaun trailing legs of green crepe. The boy screamed and ran away, presumably in search of the safe assurance of a parent. I was left wondering at the meaning of this bizarre spectacle until I learned that in material America every month deserves its Cardiversary. Christmas, and New Year, are followed by Valentine, Patrick, and Easter – which incidentally must be why Mother’s Day is in May in America and not in March as in my homeland.
As newly-weds Jill and I looked for means to establish family traditions. We conceived the idea of a St. Patrick’s Day Thanksgiving. Not, I should add, a celebration of the shamrock, the snakes being driven out of Ireland, or little green men. Rather, a celebration of the legacy of the mystical saint. Inspired by stories of the Celtic monks and Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, then listening to recitations of St. Patrick’s Breastplate and a recording of Shaun Davey’s Pilgrim Suite, I have become deeply enamored with the methods by which the Emerald Isle has consistently punched its above weight around the world.
St. Patrick, prototype of the cross-cultural missionary; the first ambassador of Christ in the West who stepped beyond the civilization of the Roman world and into the Pagus; a pioneer for those who have exchanged their maternal language, culture and costume, for all that then identifies them as among another people. St Patrick, following in the example of St. Paul to become all things to the Irish so that by all possible means he might save some. St. Patrick, whose generations of disciples became missionaries to the Scots, and the Germans and as far as the gates of Kiev…. And probably to North America long before the Vikings and Columbus.
Our Thanksgiving around March 17th has become a thanksgiving for the work of these and generations of subsequent missionaries. We have a meal – it could be traditional Thanksgiving, with a Turkey and all the trimmings. Equally it could be Irish banger sausage with the traditional colcannon, a mash of potatoes, cabbage and scallion. Whatever, it should always be accompanied by some Soda bread.
Depending on our guests we share a testimony from missions in one part or another of the world. One year in the early 2000s an Irish colleague was visiting. We had not given thought to her national identity; after all another guest that same evening was from Brazil. But for Dianne the evening proved to be moving and so meaningful.
Whatever direction the evening takes we will always close with a recitation from the prayers of St. Patrick: I arise today. Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, Through belief in the Threeness, Through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation….. Christ to shield me today: Against poison, Against burning, Against drowning, Against wounding….. Christ with me…. Christ in me…. Christ when I arise. St. Patrick has become a means to inspire our Thanksgiving well beyond the traditional November Thursday.