Dr. Sarah Pelmas and a Thanksgiving Homily

For fourteen years, Roxbury Latin has begun the last school day before the Thanksgiving break with a tradition that is distinctly RL. Thanksgiving Exercises are an opportunity to, as Headmaster Brennan said, “pause amidst the busyness of our lives to do two things. First, to remember what we like to call “the first Thanksgiving”—the circumstances, the hardships, the virtues, the rituals, the example of it. And second, to do a bit of thanks-giving ourselves.”

Filled with singing, readings, and the resonant Litany of Thanksgiving—which features a boy from each of the six classes—Thanksgiving Exercises celebrate a holiday that, as Headmaster Brennan read, “inspires us to consider those elements of our earthly experience for which we ought to be truly grateful—freedom, liberty, security, peace, companionship, love—and to express what is occasionally a difficult value to express: gratitude.

“We mark Thanksgiving not just by thanking God for our blessings manifold, but to make a tradition of thanking others in our lives for the gifts they have given us of love and kindness and generosity and friendship; a sacrifice, a gesture, an encouraging word, a smile offered, a lesson taught, and especially their forgiveness of us when we’ve made a mistake or in some way failed to be our best selves.”

In what is, as he said, “a blatant abrogation of school rules,” Headmaster Brennan then invited everyone in attendance—from Sixies on up—to take out their cell phones and text simply “Thank you” to someone who deserves it. “You can explain later!” he concluded.

Delivering the morning’s Hall address was Dr. Sarah Pelmas, Head of The Winsor School. Setting the scene with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving—and the wisdom of the sage and sound Linus—Dr. Pelmas then moved away from the 1973 animated holiday special to expand upon and contextualize two of the morning’s readings—Psalm 100 and Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving.

Delivered in October 1863—in the middle of the Civil War—Lincoln’s Proclamation came on the heels of the Battle of Gettysburg, with its nearly 50,000 casualties and bodies not yet properly buried. Lincoln delivered his Thanksgiving proclamation strategically, arguing, as Dr. Pelmas said, that “the nation has been very lucky, prosperous, and healthy; that outside of the war things have been remarkably peaceful; that the year has been productive in all the ways you can measure productivity; that all this good fortune is a gift from God; and that we must therefore set aside a day as a nation to be thankful for all the blessings. He does ask for God’s intercession to heal wounds and comfort those who are grieving, but that only comes after a strong argument that overall things are going pretty well... At its heart, this is a wartime proclamation, with the specifically political goal to minimize the war itself. This is hardly Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving!”

Dr. Pelmas also pointed to Psalm 100, “a particularly lovely psalm, one that asks its hearers in all nations to be thankful to God. It is purposefully international. It uses the words joy, gladness, and thanksgiving. And all this joyfulness is linked explicitly with insisting that all nations do this; everyone in the world is connected in the “we” and “us” that is singing and joyful. And in the final verse, this sweet little psalm of happiness actually makes a big claim: that we are all connected as one people, and that we are joined by God in love, mercy, faithfulness, and truth. For the particularly combative moment we currently find ourselves in, this is a wonderful reminder of where we should all be right now.”

Dr. Pelmas is the eighth head of The Winsor School, which she joined in July 2016 after a tenure at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. Prior to NCS, she served for a decade on the faculty and as part of the administration at San Francisco University High School. Dr. Pelmas has taught in the English departments of Stanford, Syracuse University, the City College of San Francisco, and the University of California, Berkeley. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Princeton University and her master’s in English and Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She earned her Ph.D. in Rhetoric from the University of California Berkeley.

View photos from the Thanksgiving Exercises by Mike Pojman.
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