Makings of a real Thanksgiving? Hospitality to strangers.

Opening one's home at Thanksgiving to those less fortunate evokes the spirit of that first feast of gratitude between Pilgrims and Indians – a shared table of different peoples.

Guests bow their heads as a blessing is said during an early Thanksgiving dinner for wounded soldiers and their families given by Vice President Joe Biden and his wife in Washington Nov. 19.

Of all the holidays in America, Thanksgiving brings out a special antenna in many people. They become alert to those who are far from family or home and then invite them to their yearly feast of food and gratitude.

This act of welcoming others, even strangers, into our homes for a shared meal evokes the first thanksgiving. If not for the hospitality of the Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims might not have survived their first year in New England’s “howling wilderness.” Their joint feast of fowl and fixings was really a giving of thanks for the welcome acceptance of one people by another.

That same spirit of hospitality will be witnessed this Thanksgiving in the welcoming of people hit by superstorm Sandy into the homes of those who probably open their hearts to refugees of any storm of life.

And this Thanksgiving, there are many holiday refugees. They are the isolated seniors of an aging society, the many more college students too far from home, or the immigrants who know little of American traditions. One in 3 people now lives alone, up from 1 in 10 just 60 years ago. Nearly half of working-class children don’t live with their father.

Real hospitality, the kind of open-handed acceptance of those less fortunate or who are very different from us, has eroded. Schedules are more hectic and time precious. Divorce and job mobility break up neighborliness. People live more as residents of a community than stewards of it. That loss of community raises a fear of others.

“The best predictor of a low crime rate in a neighborhood,” says Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, “is how many of the neighbors know each other’s first names.”

Even Martin Luther complained in the 16th century that the hospitality of Abraham’s day was not possible with “such a large number of vagabonds and scoundrels in the world as there is today.”

The word hospitality, derived from a Greek word meaning “taking care of strangers,” is most often used now for an industry – hotels, resorts, or restaurants. In churches, it can simply apply to those who usher or serve refreshments after a service. And it is often associated simply with entertaining friends rather than the transcending of prejudice by hosting strangers in our homes.

Yet when Lincoln declared an annual Thanksgiving, it was meant to promote hospitality. The woman who championed the official holiday, Sarah Hale, wrote in 1864: “Let us each see to it that on this one day there shall be no family or individual, within the compass of our means to help, who shall not have some portion prepared, and some reason to join in the general Thanksgiving.”

The holiday can be a great equalizer, bringing together the rich and poor or a family with strangers. In ancient days, strangers would wash each other’s feet or provide a spare bed as a generous welcome. The willingness to meet such basic needs was the moral basis for holding society together.

The benefits of hospitality can be hard to predict. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” we read in Hebrews.

Making a place at a Thanksgiving dinner for others who have little should not be a duty or something done with an expectation of reciprocity. Such kindness may be repaid in ways not imagined. A community may be created or restored. Fears may be reduced and social boundaries broken.

Hospitality creates the kind of gratitude that pays forward to the next Thanksgiving.

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