1. Honor the Ancestors
Samhain is for ancestors, right? Why bother with it at Thanksgiving? Well, as a pagan parent I have some news for you: Samhain has another name, and the name is CANDY. Trying to balance the deep seated childhood drive to wear costumes and collect the freely given sugar goods with genuine veneration of those who have come before us can be difficult at best. I’ve joked with a lot of pagans that Halloween is Pagan Christmas. It’s a busy time. In my community we almost always have big Halloween parties for the adults, as well as costumes for the kids, visits to the grandparents for trick or treating events throughout the month, the Zoo Boo, not to mention the actual religiosity of the season with big Samhain rituals to plan for both adults and kids. It doesn’t actually leave a lot of time for building an ancestor shrine or talking to my kids about their own personal dead relatives. So a couple of years ago I came up with an idea.
During October I focus on modern Halloween. We do costumes and candy, decorate the whole house with skulls and dead things. It’s awesome, and is it’s own version of Samhain. After the big candy-fest I switch gears like a pagan Martha Stewart Pro, tucking away the bats and glittery ravens decorating the house. You don’t have glittery cardboard ravens? You should. They’re awesome.
That’s when I set up my ancestors altar. I get out the photos and the tchotchkes: a teacup from Buckie Scotland and one from Poland, my great grandmother’s rolling pin and if I have room, my grandmother’s wedding dress. I let the kids look at all the things. When they were younger I printed out copies of old photos on my printer and let the kids cut up the images and tape them up so we wouldn’t ruin the originals. We give them daily offerings for the weeks between Samhain and Thanksgiving, allowing them some special, uninterrupted, family time.
On turkey day we make a plate up for the ancestors and give them a glass of wine too. It’s actually a really cool conversation starter with relatives because they often will tell stories I don’t remember anymore. Ancestors blend with a day that is supposed to be about family. After that, I allow the fat man and his green and red decorating scheme to sneak out of the basement and start to emerge into the household, but only after the ancestors get their time.
2. Learn about the Native American Tribes in your Area
We all know the story. White man comes to new land. Red man decides to not let him starve in what was most likely a foolishly generous move. Yay for pilgrim hats and feather headdresses! Everyone loves each other. Except for smallpox and a few other minor details. Except for that bad stuff we like to forget about.
As pagans we are often in the process of reclaiming indigenous religion. For myself, I focus on the Indo-European traditions. I do think that means we need to be supportive and respectful of indigenous peoples, especially the ones native to this continent many of us call home. Take a little time and let Google lend a hand to learn about the history of the tribes who live and lived in your home area. Realize that the history of the native tribes is complex, just like the history of the Gaulish Romano-Celts or the interactions between the Greek city states. Historically the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Odawa were the tribes living in the lower peninsula. Together they created the Council of Three Fires, which as a Druid and a fire priestess, I find pretty rockingly awesome!
3. Eat Local
This one is kind of obvious. We’re pagans. Even if you don’t have an Earth Mother that you honor in your pantheon, you probably have landvettir, fairies, or agricultural deities that would appreciate you being kind to the earth. So find a local farm to buy a turkey from. Eat food from your bioregion. Learn how to turn a real pumpkin into pumpkin pie. (Pro tip: don’t use a pumpkin. Bake a butternut squash and use that. The texture and flavor will be way better.) Sometimes farmer’s markets will have one last huzzah just before the winter sets in so that people can pick up items for the holidays. This can mean that thanksgiving will cost more. Look at it as an offering to the land spirits and to your health as well.
4. Be With People You EnjoyI’m not going to advocate for going to a relative’s house to eat crappy food and feel hateful toward people you have nothing in common with. Sorry. I know that’s the thing we’re all told to do. If you’re planning on picking up a fifth of something alcoholic in order to survive turkey day, I would say skip it. Stay home and watch football or weird Christmas movies on Netflix if that’s your only alternative.
However, I do think that there’s something better than both those options. Go somewhere with people you care about. If that’s actually the people who you are related to, great! Find a Thanksgiving that will bring you happiness. Go somewhere you will laugh with actual humor and not that fake forced thing that happens when you do not feel loved or seen as a person. Or better yet, host a Friendsgiving. This is something my husband and I have done for years. We put out an offer for any friends who don’t have someplace to go and invite any relatives that would like to come. It makes for a fun and lively bunch of people with a weird mix of traditions and stories. One year there was a menorah made out of Legos. One year we had five stuffings. Let Thanksgiving be the time when you take the stranger into your house and show them hospitality, which is, after all, a druidic virtue.
5. Practice Gratitude
Life is a gift. Everything we are and everything we will be is fed from the lives of other beings. On this day of thanks giving, take a moment and be still. Close your eyes and allow yourself to truly ponder your existence and the existence of your loved ones. We humans like to live our lives forgetting how fragile they truly are. It’s difficult to know what to do in the face of homelessness, war, and sickness. It’s difficult to feel the pain that those things bring up within us, but that pain is essential. It is a gift, too. Let yourself just exist with it for a moment.
Then open your eyes.
Smell the turkey cooking; listen to the sound of voices. Look around you. Even the shabby things, the chipped dishes or the worn curtains that you need to replace are gifts. This life is a gift made of things found from the earth. Each plastic cup, every napkin, every fork and knife on that table was made through the work of people from the materials of this planet. Every bit of it is made from nature to be used and kept by people. Cherish your things. Use them well. Cherish your people. Use them well too. Be respectful and kind. Never forget, this is all a gift.
Happy Holidays, dear reader.