Thanksgiving, when you get past the elementary school fluff, has three things as its focus: an attitude of conscious thankfulness, strengthening familial bonds, and celebrating our citizenship through a shared founding mythos. The Apaturia, a three day festival celebrated by both ancient Greeks and some modern Hellenic Pagans, has the same three elements. Which is why some US Hellenes are not just celebrating the Apaturia in place of Thanksgiving, but see them as essentially the same holiday and have syncretized the two observances into one. This blending of modern and American with ancient and Greek is happening more often within Hellenismos as the religion turns from the task of reconstructing a dead religion to reviving a living ‘colony’ religion. We are not Athens, modern or ancient. We are developing different traditions, local holidays, and even honoring Gods and other divine beings that are specific to where we live. Yet we are firmly grounded and guided by our religious foundation and practices.
As an aside, if you are looking for an article that examines Thanksgiving and the First Nations, please read Happy Thanksgiving? by Galina Krasskova. She did an excellent job and if you would like to join that discussion, the comments section of her article is hopping.
Back to the Apaturia. In order to understand why some Hellenic Pagans celebrate the Apaturia as Thanksgiving we need to first examine what the Apaturia, which could be translated as the “common bond/relationship”, was as it was celebrated in ancient Greece. Let’s pretend you are time travelers and you are going back to the newly democratic city of Athens. You’ve received notice from the head of your family clan that the festival for your family would take place late in the month of Pyanepsion – which relates to present day early November. Family clans choose any date they wish within the month of Pyanepsion for their clan’s celebration.
You arrive on the morning of the first day of the festival and go right to the home of your uncle, who is the clan chief. You can already smell the aroma from the huge feast that is being prepared as you walk into the entryway. In the courtyard you are greeted by your extended family. As others arrive throughout the day you, in turn, welcome them. Stories are swapped, jokes are told, the young boys (and sometimes the older men who should know better in such a small space!) wrestle around. You chat with grandfather about past Apaturias, and relax, enjoying the closeness and comfort of family gathered together. The day is spent catching up on all the family news. Then the day is topped off with a huge dinner that leaves you sleepy and groaning.
The second day is a day of animal sacrifice. The entire family gathers around the large stone altar in the courtyard. Uncle thanks Zeus and Athene for the blessings He has granted the family and asks Him for blessings in the coming year. During the ritual you are focused on consciously dwelling in a state of gratitude for the past year while looking forward, with hope, to the upcoming one. Leftovers are brought out to supplement the meat from the sacrifice and are eaten throughout the day.
The third and last day of the festival is when family business is conducted and citizenship is established and celebrated. Stories of the first of our family line to come to this area are told. Their struggles and victories are recounted and become the mythos that connects us to this land. New members of the family, through birth, marriage, or adoption, are formally accepted into your family and are granted citizenship rights. Your younger brother has entered puberty, along with a scattering of his cousins, and you fight to hid a smile as they very solemnly place a lock of hair on the altar fire. More animals are sacrificed, and those family members who have come of age have their names recorded as adults. You remember how proud you were when you say Uncle adding your name to the list. After the sacrifices, there are a few tense moments as serious family business is discussed. Your cousin narrowly secures approval and funding to start his business. There is some discussion of an advantageous marriage for your sister, but nothing comes of it. Then the libations start. Wine is poured for your ancestors, who came to this land and fought to make it ours. Wine is poured for your new family members celebrating their citizenship in the greatest city ever graced by the Gods. Wine keeps being poured and the libations continue through dinner and far into the evening. The family is all together and you enjoy this time. It may not happen again until next year’s Apaturia.
Now you travel forward in time to, well, November 25, 2010. Some Hellenic Pagans are celebrating Thanksgiving in the same spirit as the Apaturia and doing so purposefully, blending the two into one.
There are differences. We trade in the oxen for a turkey as the animal of sacrifice, or perhaps even a tofurkey. The festival lasts one day instead of three. Columbia sometimes replaces Athene as one of the divine honored since some Hellenes see Her as the patron of our land. Hestia gains more prominence as this is a family focused ritual. But the spirit of the two holidays make for an easy and natural syncretization of Thanksgiving and Apaturia – gratitude, family, and citizenship. A ‘common bond or relationship.’
We still thank Zeus for protecting the family and for all the blessings He granted us in the past year. Hestia is honored for the Her blessing of family, loved ones, and religious community. We gather with our families, no matter the distance, and strengthen our bonds by breaking bread together. We catch up on each others’ lives and find out what our plans are for the upcoming year. Assistance is asked for and given, we pull together for the good of our family. Babies are doted on, new spouses are welcomed. Prospective mates are sized up by the rest of the family. While we honor Columbia, we think about how fortunate we are to live where we do. How our ancestors came here, lived, loved, toiled, and sometimes fought – and by their blood they tie us to this land and the spirits who dwell here. Songs are sung, prayers are said, barley is thrown, and libations are poured.
And we get to eat one heck of a meal.