Sharing More Than a Meal at the Thanksgiving Table

Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for running this piece as an op-ed on Thanksgiving, November 28, 2019.

Some years back my mother insisted that I watch the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Released in 1987, the movie revolves upon the difficulties of Thanksgiving holiday travel. On a deeper level, it’s also about the common grace that two very different individuals — Steve Martin’s uptight business executive and John Candy’s garrulous shower curtain ring salesman — find in each other. Appropriately, the paths of these two strangers, by suggestion of the movie’s final scene, will ultimately merge at a Thanksgiving table, where despite their differences, they will sit side by side.

Here’s the reason my mom recommended the movie: We had recently travelled on a family trip through Peru with all kinds of setbacks — flat tires, roadblocks and requests to prove our U.S. citizenship. The movie’s premise, however, seemed to me exceedingly cliché. But after a first viewing, I was hooked. Our family has watched the movie every Thanksgiving holiday since.


The first American Thanksgiving, legend tells us, brought Pilgrims and indigenous people together in peace in 1621 to share a bountiful harvest in present-day Massachusetts. Closer examination of the historical record reveals that the Pilgrims — half their numbers didn’t survive the previous winter — and the indigenous had plenty of reason to be wary of one another. The Pilgrims anticipated another brutal winter, and the Chief Massasoit-led Wampanoag were squeezed by their immigrant table guests to the east and their long-time rivals, the Narraganset, to the west. The first Thanksgiving, like the gathering featured in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” was all about strangers encountering one another face to face, forced to consider the possibility that their differences did not outsize their commonalities.

American society is at a precarious state with the arrival of Thanksgiving 2019. Nationally, our politics have become divisive and hyper-partisan; in Texas, there are immigrant children separated from their parents and needlessly traumatized at the border; locally in Austin, there is a homelessness problem and statewide wrangling about how to respond to it. Longtime friends and family members sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye on these and other issues. Due to a crisis of national leadership, there is permission to disparage one another simply because of a difference of opinion.

This polarization threatens not only family gatherings, but civic life as well. Thanksgiving Day is the only national holiday with a specified menu, and consequently, the requirement to be seated at a table. At a table with turkey and varied trimmings, we encounter one another — family, friends and sometimes strangers — with a face-to-face intimacy that is not required on July 4 or Labor Day.

My wife and I lived with our infant daughter in Perú in the late 1980s as I completed a two-year internship during my seminary education. When my parents, who spoke zero Spanish, visited us, food and tables were exclusively the method by which they met Peruvians (few who spoke English). My wife and I were the translators — bridgers — to explain the food and personally connect those who shared the table.

In this hyper-partisan age, those of us who are bridgers have an abundance of worthy and necessary work to do. Gratitude, generosity, and grace are the classic Thanksgiving virtues shared at the table. After we turn the calendar on Thanksgiving, may we have the civic pride to continue to practice these virtues with family, neighbors, political adversaries and even strangers. Our very survival as a civil society depends upon it.

balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

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Happy Black Friday Eve!!

Happy Thanksgiving  . . . I mean, Happy Black Friday Eve.

Daaammmnnn – I’m doing my best to adjust to the new reality, but I’m having some trouble.

I’m so deplorably old-school. I just can’t get the hang of the new lingo or the new way to roll.

Gathering together with family and friends around the table and enjoying turkey, ham, Tofurky (that’s vegetarian tofu-turkey for you extremely old-school types) and all the trimmings, toasting the day of gratitude with some nice oaky California Chardonnay . . . I now realize this description represents a by-gone era, like a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart holiday classic.

Today – early twenty-first century – “Thanksgiving” is increasingly about getting ready for Black Friday Eve and Black Friday, the biggest shopping days of the American calendar year. Turn on the football games if you must, but get ready to go! Shop!! And for our hard-working Americans, go and get the Walmart, Target, and the plethora of mall stores ready to rock, stock, and roll! Push away from the table and do your duty!

This is our time.

Or, at least it used to be.


I saw commerce-based Christmas commercials on TV before Halloween this year. I’m not knocking commerce; buying and selling defines the modern world and provides goods, employment, services, and meaning for the vast majority of us. Market activity is a good thing – unequivocally. We’d rather the youngest generation – able, creative, and impressionable – become integrated into the world of commerce than one of other-worldly disinterest and hate, which in extreme cases, can lead to things like terrorism.

Even though commerce is a great civilizing force, it ultimately does not make the world go round. The words of a Jewish prophet from long ago, “Life does not consist of the abundance of possessions,” cut against the grain of commerce’s ability to dominate. Maintaining balance and perspective in the midst of all the pots, pans, smartphones, sofa chairs, and cars that surround us requires either poverty or discipline.

Thanksgiving Day 2011: Walmart, Kohl’s, Target, and Best Buy annex the holiday for commercial purposes by opening their doors at 10 p.m. That very night “customer versus customer shopping rage” is reported and responded to by police in at least seven states. This year, Walmart and Target are hitting the airwaves unabashed with advertisements inviting shoppers in at 6 p.m. for Black Friday Eve. Kudos to the checkout aisle workers who, upon handing shoppers their receipts, crack a wry smile and go subversive: Have a good Black Friday Eve holiday weekend. 

Not all Americans are falling for the ploy. The pushback to maintain Thanksgiving as holiday without street fighting at the local big box retailer is gaining momentum. Increased internet commerce mitigates the big box stores’ physical lure. And that really cheap 40″ LED television on sale for Black Friday? It truly is cheap – made exclusively on the cheap for Black Friday and only sold on Black Friday.

On the positive side of the ledger, REI, the national outdoor equipment store, is leading the way by being closed on Thanksgiving Day and Friday. Locally in Austin, Tree House, an environmentally conscious home improvement store, is also closing its doors to commerce on Thursday and Friday. #optoutdoors

Two exemplary theologians of our day – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Walter Brueggemann – have done excellent work lifting up the classic teaching of biblical Sabbath. Sabbath is time to give thanks, slow down, take inventory, breathe deep, and get away from some of the distractions of everyday life. I’m looking forward to Sabbath time this Thanksgiving with family and friends. And then I’m going to sleep in on Friday . . .


T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).



isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web!

The Proper Place of Excess

Thanksgiving, once again, is here and gone. I know I had too much to eat and drink. How about you?

Excess is a regular part of the natural order. Our bodies turn excess calories into fat cells – technically, stored energy for later use. Most excess weight, however, is simply lugged around serving unwittingly as a contributing factor to health problems. Alcohol, on the other hand, is eliminated by the body. But a morning-after dehydration headache, caused by excessive drinking, lets you know you overdid it. Long-term excessive drinking, of course, will kill you.

Excess has its consequences.

Excess, nevertheless, plays an important role in the survival process. You and I are here thanks to an excessive amount of spermatozoa, from which emerged one little victor to join forces with an ovum. Survival of the fittest and the fertilized! And not only that, some of the plants which provide food, oxygen, and beauty upon the earth produce seeds for their own reproduction numbering in excess of hundreds and thousands. As a Texas gardener, I plant basil for the summer and cilantro for the winter (for year-round pesto). For seven years running, I haven’t had to purchase seeds to keep my gardens growing. Their seed production is voluminous; I only have to figure out where I left the seeds collected from the previous season!


Historically, Northern Hemisphere winter has been the season of rest and recuperation. During winter seasons ancestral, many of our forebears rejoiced in the gathered harvest, savored freshly slaughtered meat, and delighted in new beer and wine. Before hunkering down to wait out the winter, trusting their accumulated supplies to hold out – our Northern Hemisphere ancestors celebrated. The winter solstice, December 21, marking the rebirth of the sun, has traditionally been associated with feasts and festivals replete with excesses. Our own secular Christmastime holiday is a direct descendant of these revelries.

Roman Saturnalia and misrule, centered on feasting and gift-giving, also featured societal role reversals where servants and peasants became lords and ladies for a day or short season. The usually steady tables of fortune were turned, if only for a moment. During misrule (common in European societies and colonial America) individuals of low socioeconomic status demanded that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them – the servants and peons of society – as if they were the wealthy and deserving. Servants pounded on the doors of their superiors demanding fresh meat and fresh brew. For the most part, these and far more unsavory indulgences were tolerated during misrule. You might have heard or read about the Puritans of Massachusetts infamously outlawing Christmas in the late 1600s. It wasn’t the legendary anniversary of the Savior’s birth with which they had trouble, but the simultaneous misrule celebrations that exalted excesses, some acceptable and others decidedly distasteful.

Later, in the 1800s, misrule evolved into a new type of social inversion that has persisted to our own day, justly captured in the well-known Mel Tormé lyric: Christmas was made for children. In the mid-1800s, before compulsory schooling, children were understood to be miniature adults who occupied the bottom rung of social hierarchy along with peasants and servants. Modern secular Christmas – a family celebration – was created at this time with children becoming the focus of charity and goodwill. Misrule became domesticated, but its excesses were not lost in the transition.

Many of our familial antecedents received only oranges and hard candy for Christmas as children during the Depression (they were thankful for it, though – ask them while you still can and they’ll tell you).  As if DNA code, the excesses inherent to the original secular celebrations that shaped our modern Christmas – Saturnalia and misrule – survived the Depression and now thrive as never before. Today’s high and holy season of excess – starting with Black Friday Eve (it used to be called Thanksgiving) and continuing through New Year’s Day celebrations – is unmatched in terms of devotion to consumerism, materialism, consumption, waste, and over-indulgence.

As the wisdom teacher of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for all things under the sun. Even excess. I enjoy the extended holiday, especially as my birthday falls during the season. It’s a good thing to celebrate the milestones of this life – on occasion – with a bit of excess. A case of really good wine, a lavish celebratory meal, an expensive trip with loved ones, extended vacation, tickets to a show – it’s your own misrule for a day or season.

It’s natural in the Northern Hemisphere to overdo it a bit at this time of the year. It’s been this way for millennia. But, as wisdom says, all good things in moderation. Whereas a season or moment of excess can have, on occasion, a proper place, we best be wary of its supposed charms.

too much
“How much is enough, Walt?” Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All,” Season 5

Father Richard Rohr says: “Excess turns all gifts into curses.”

We live in a society where excess has become a way of life, a way of understanding the world, a way of being and interacting in the world. Excess, a cultural value revered and worshipped since the early 1980s in the US, invites extremism and undermines societal common good. How much is enough?


T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).