Since Ramadan moves back 10 days every year based on the lunar calendar, this year it has the ironic pleasure of coming during Thanksgiving, the Canadian Thanksgiving that is. Yes Canada has its own Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October. Why is it a month and a half earlier than America’s? Because Canadians like to have one month to three months between a fattening Thanksgiving dinner and a fattening Christmas season. Actually it’s because geographically the harvest comes a few weeks earlier.
However Canada’s Thanksgiving differs from America’s. For the Americans it is in part a celebration of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock and becoming settlers in the New World. Historically the Canadians actually held the first Thanksgiving in North America but in Canada it’s mainly to commemorate the harvest. These are in part traditions of thanking God for an abundance of food, carried on from Europe.
So on many dinner tables across both nations are traditional staples such as turkey, yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Sometimes in the middle is the traditional centerpiece: a cornucopia, also known as the ‘horn of plenty’.
When I was a kid over here Thanksgiving was just another day off from school. It had no cultural significance for my family and would pass almost unnoticed. A day to celebrate an abundance of food? Only in North America (where obesity rates are off the charts these days).
Last weekend I spent the day with my uncle and his family in Toronto. After ftoor one of my uncle’s guests who is a new immigrant to Canada was asking about some of the customs after my cousin brought up Halloween. He was baffled by the concept of children knocking on doors to pose the haunting question: trick or treat? “And they actually get free candy?” he asked. This is a night of the year where my uncle turns off the lights in the house, disconnects the doorbell and pretends not to be home.
Understanding Thanksgiving is less of a battle. Giving thanks to God for His bounty is not an unfamiliar concept to Muslims, although we’re told to do this with every meal we make it the centerpiece of our religious teachings for the entire month of Ramadan.
The irony is that Ramadan is in part a month where less food should be consumed in an attempt to achieve the following: a cleansing of the mind and body in order to focus our energies towards the worship of God for a month, as well as gaining the ability to remember what it feels like to not have an abundance of food. This latter aspect is symbolized on the last day of Ramadan, Eid il-Fitir, where everyone pays Zakat il-Fitir (a type of charitable tax) that is an obligation and a pillar of Islam. The money is usually used to feed and cloth the needy.
The irony I was getting at is that for the most part Ramadan seems to be a month where more food is consumed than the usual. This is a subject matter that has been talked about endlessly by many. Yes, indulging in an abundance of food in an attempt to ‘feel with the poor’ may seem a bit hypocritical or even missing the point.
However there are certain aspects of this that may be appealing. Food brings families and friends together. In the course of a year many will eat their meals based on their own schedules, but in Ramadan hunger rearranges everything so that everyone is at the family dinner table for a decent amount of time before, during and after the feast if not for most of the month. Note that the word “Iftar” does not mean or imply “feast”.
Also, it’s not really the feast per se that is supposed to be important when it comes to feeling with the poor, it’s the fasting during the day and for those few hours that the entire Muslim world, be they rich or poor, are exactly the same, similar to the objective of prayer. The point is to get a taste of what it might be like to have less than what you have and in doing so be inclined to become more charitable, be thankful for what you have and perhaps even recognize the priorities in one’s life just like the Rolling Stone’s song that goes “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need”. Not everything you want in life is something you need; it is the difference between sustenance and abundance and Ramadan is there to remind people of that.
Do I wish people ate less in Ramadan? Do I wish that while spending many hours and many dinars on shopping they remember to use that time and money to help support the poor? Do I wish that the days of Ramadan revolved more around God than they did around food? Sure. But even the more unfortunate people will spend a lot of time and what little money they have to make sure ftoor is as much a feast as they can make it. Because breaking fast is just as important as fasting itself. Otherwise the contrast would be gone and we’d have little to be thankful for. It is about religion, society, family, values, culture and everything else rolled in to one. It was meant to approach all these elements at the same time. The worship of God is just as important as remembering the less fortunate as is being with family and friends, visiting each other, remembering one another and being thankful for everything.
Thanksgiving is obviously not as culturally potent as Ramadan however it does, if only for a few hours a year, serve a similar purpose.
So tonight, to compromise, I will break fast with a beautiful turkey sandwich.
(only a man would describe a sandwich as beautiful)