In two days, on November, 25, America is going to celebrate Thanksgiving Day which has a very significant role in American families because it is one of the few times a year that the family gets together. Thanksgiving Day is also called a Turkey day because it usually involves a meal with turkey or at least a more elaborate meal. Most American Orthodox Christians started the Nativity Fast on November, 15. How can an Orthodox Christian navigate these family gatherings, often with family who are not Orthodox, and still keep the Nativity fast? We asked Fr. Panayiotis Papageorgiou and Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov to answer this question.
Fr. Panayiotis Papageorgiou, Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia.
Thanksgiving for Americans is a family event. The roots of the feast are found in the inclination of the human heart to offer thanks to God for the abundance of blessings He has bestowed upon us. Theologically speaking this feast is an extension of the Divine Liturgy - the Holy Eucharist (in Greek Eucharistia=thanksgiving).
As Orthodox Christians, who value the unity and strength of the family, we are inclined to adopt this feast as our own, especially at a time when the institution of the family is under attack from all directions. Considering the traditional Thanksgiving meal, however, which involves turkey, ham and dairy products, Orthodox Christians trying to hold the fast of Christmas are faced with the dilemma: Should I hold the fast and go contrary to the established social and cultural norms associated with Thanksgiving Day or should I break the fast in order to facilitate the need of blending in and not making others uncomfortable with my presence?
Several years ago, responding to the request of the faithful under its jurisdiction in America, the Patriarchate of Constantinople applying "economia" discreetly granted its blessing for those who live in America to break the fast on Thanksgiving Day while focusing on the unity of the family and the "eucharistic" aspects of this feast, but quickly return to the observance of the fast immediately afterwards. The non-Orthdox cultural norm is thus transformed through our theology and this pastoral approach to a positive element for the strengthening of family bonds, while keeping with the necessity of our spiritual ascesis of fasting.
Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov, rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russian church in Mulino, Oregon
This question rarely troubles those who keep the Julian calendar, as is the case in the Russian Orthodox Church, since our Nativity Fast begins on November 28. However, some years, Thanksgiving does land on November 28--the first day of our Nativity Fast. I can see two approaches to resolving the conflict between fasting rules and a Thanksgiving turkey.
First, in my opinion, there would be nothing wrong if diocesan authorities or even parish rectors chose to relax some fasting rules on this day, especially in those parishes which are composed of mostly American converts to Orthodoxy, who not only have many non-Orthodox family members, but have grown up with the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving in a certain way. Perhaps, a token morsel of turkey and a symbolic piece of pie with a heartfelt prayer to God, thanking Him for His boundless mercies to us, is a better witness to Orthodoxy than a senseless discussion among non-Orthodox family members of which foods are allowed and which are not. A true fast is much more than food. An Orthodox Christian would do well abstaining from gossip, back-biting, and judging, as well as gluttony, drunkenness, and other sins and passions which may find for themselves fertile soil at the Thanksgiving table.
Second, keeping a strict fast in America is rarely a problem at all. There are many Americans who do not eat turkey, or pie, or mashed potatoes for any number of reasons--various health and weight-loss diets, vegetarian and vegan convictions, and others. Most American families seem to have absolutely no problem with someone declining one dish in favor of another and having tofu instead of meat, salad instead of cake, or fruit instead of ice-cream. Nobody seems to get offended or upset, and Orthodox Christians should stop making belly-pleasing excuses for why they cannot keep the fast.
One thing I would absolutely discourage is for people to individually decide whether they will keep the fast or relax it. Our fasts are the common fasts of the whole Church; and we should fast as one body or feast as one body. If our Christian family is keeping a strict fast, then we must also keep a strict fast, even if our biological family will not approve of this. Of course, we must observe our fast will all gentleness, piety, and discretion, without flashy advertisements of our self-righteousness.