A Matter of the Heart: Reflections on How America Celebrates Thanksgiving

We’re now two weeks away from Thanksgiving. When I mention it to the Chinese students with whom I work, bright eyes and big smiles greet me. Thanksgiving. They’ve heard of it. Especially the really big bird we Americans eat whose name they can never remember. Today one of my Chinese friends suggested we cook one of those birds at our next weekly cooking class and I laughed. I explained to him that cooking a turkey takes hours and hours and that we would never accomplish the task in the relatively short amount of time we have on Thursday evenings. Thoughts of cooking such a large piece of meat for the whole day made his eyes brighten even more. What a curiosity!
Recently, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to American holidays and how we choose to celebrate them. I work with Chinese students, ministering to them in Christ’s name. I see differences between us almost every day, but if there is one time of year when I particularly notice the difference between Chinese and American culture, it’s at the holidays.

I’ll never forget my first year living in China. Holidays were crazy – totally different from what I had experienced in America. In China, holidays are a time for activity. The whole country comes alive with a pulse that is incomparable to anything in America. The sheer size of China’s population sets in motion a dizzying atmosphere of travel, commerce, and excitement that is inescapable. During a major holiday in China, there is nowhere to go to escape the buzz of people enjoying themselves.

But our American celebrations are often very different. Holidays are a time for the country to shut down. We rush to get where we are going so that we can hide away in peace with our loved ones. There may be shopping and football and movies leading up to and definitely after the holiday, but the holiday itself is meant to be insular. It is for “us” and anything that encroaches on our rightfully earned “us” time sparks intense controversy, from domestic squabbles over office work brought home to national debate about the injustice of stores opening on Thanksgiving Day. Americans don’t like anything that might take away from the quiet and family-centered ideal of our national holidays.

Many of my Chinese friends have been terribly confused by this American ideal. How can you have a holiday without lots of people on the streets? I’ve had many conversations with students during their first year in the United States and they tell me about wandering the streets on Thanksgiving Day expecting to see crowds and liveliness. Instead they are confronted with isolation. One friend didn’t know she needed to buy groceries ahead of time and ended up eating an odd assortment of whatever scraps were left in her fridge. In short, unless they know what to expect ahead of time, most Chinese students find our holidays to be the time of year when they are most locked out from the fun and excitement going on around them.

I’ve not necessarily known this to greatly upset my friends. They have not come to America expecting to adopt its holidays and traditions. My Chinese friends know they are outsiders as international students and they are content to settle into that societal role. Usually by the second year around, they have found a Chinese friend group with whom to celebrate. They call their moms back home, learn how to make their favorite dishes, and create an elaborate Chinese feast. Black Friday becomes the big focal point as its hustle and bustle feels more akin to the lively activity of Chinese holidays. Many of my Chinese friends don’t expect to be incorporated into traditional American Thanksgiving, but they greatly anticipate the American tradition of shopping, an access point into our culture for anyone with enough disposable cash.

My Chinese friends are not crying themselves to sleep every night for lack of celebrating American Thanksgiving, but what has struck me recently is that this means they are content to remain “outsiders.” And I ask myself, why are we as the church also content with this? The heart of hospitality is extending what is not expected. It is about giving where nothing is required. Hospitality is about surprising people with grace when they aren’t looking for it.

It is not bad that we want to spend the holidays with our families, focusing on “us” when we live in a world that so often grabs our attention elsewhere. But maybe it is time American Christians considered bringing others into the warmth of our holidays. The American church does not have to wait for the world to knock on its door before it starts to include people. We need to take a long hard look at our traditions and consider how we might better create space for others. How can we focus on our loved ones and still include the stranger? How can the church foster communities that extend grace proactively, even when we are not being asked for it?

Growing up, my parents regularly invited my dad’s foreign graduate students to our family Thanksgiving parties. If I am totally honest, I didn’t really like this practice. They were outsiders to our family and they usually brought strange food that we were required to try. I will never forget the year a Chinese graduate student brought jellyfish. Let’s just say it didn’t go down particularly well with cranberry and stuffing!

By opening our homes and our tables to “the stranger at our gates,” we willingly invite discomfort upon ourselves and upon our families. Your kids will probably roll their eyes and complain. Your parents may not understand why you don’t want to sit around the table with just them. Conversation will be strained at times and confusion is bound to ensue at various points throughout the day.

But in the end, you will have imitated Christ. God did not wait for us to invite ourselves to his table. He did not wait to extend his gracious hospitality to us. Nor did he leave us to our own devices, isolated and alone. Rather our Lord took it upon himself to extend his hand and welcome us into his celebration. He did not consider the discomfort and indignity something to take notice of, but rather he humbled himself in order that we might be included, even when we didn’t desire to be so.

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Truthfully, it is still hard for me to want to make extra room at the table. But when I think about how much my friends’ eyes brighten at the thought of seeing the big bird we eat, it makes it easier and more fun. And ultimately, when I think about the direct gospel implications involved, I realize that what it comes down to is a matter of the heart. Like the parable of the unforgiving debtor who would not extend the same grace that had been given him, when I refuse hospitality to those around me I am neglecting the hospitality that the Lord has given me. The proper response is an attitude of openhandedness and of gratitude that looks out into our neighborhoods and invites people into the warmth of fellowship. Let us prepare our hearts in the coming weeks for such a task.


Hannah Nation serves as the blog editor for the China Partnership. She is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and works full-time on staff with China Outreach Ministries, serving students in the Boston metro area. She first traveled to China in 2005 and has cared deeply for the country and its church ever since.

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Further Reading

How I Prayed For Instruction
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God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
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A Chinese Immigrant’s Reflection on American Holidays
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