Thanksgiving: The most American holiday

I hope you and yours are enjoying whatever Thanksgiving festivities you engage in.  For us in our new city, Thanksgiving has been both different and the same: like any holiday, there are certain rituals surrounding Thanksgiving that provide that comfortable sense of familiarity almost no matter where you are.  As I sit to digest an excellent meal (and, like many other Americans, ask myself the annual question “why is it always the Lions and the Cowboys on Thanksgiving?”), I’m also pondering Thanksgiving as America’s holiday, and thought I’d share thoughts about it here, on this blog that attempts to make sense of my country.

I think of Thanksgiving as the most American of holidays—unlike Independence Day (another competitor for the title), which most other countries celebrate on their own day of founding/independence/revolution, Thanksgiving as a formal annual celebration is a North American thing.  And I like that: I think it in many ways spotlights some of the things that are best about America.  It’s a holiday that reaches across all ethnicities and religions (or lack thereof).  Unlike most other days of celebration, which can alienate some group of people (large or small), it’s pretty hard to come up with anybody who will feel excluded by a national intention to feel thankful.  It is a day to acknowledge how lucky we have been—and America has certainly had its fair share of luck.  It is a day to remember with gratitude that we have been more fortunate that we strictly deserve.  As the prototypical First World nation, I’m glad that our distinctive national holiday is one that essentially asks us to admit our humility in the face of all we have to enjoy.  It’s a holiday of hospitality, the one holiday I can think of where I hear of people observing it by feeding the hungry or clothing the needy (though not enough of us do these things).  When people around the world envision the good qualities they associate with Americans, I think a lot of them are lived out today.

Yes, it’s a holiday devoted to gluttony and family argument and the glorification of materialism, too.  We can rag on Thanksgiving if we want to.  But the beautiful thing about Thanksgiving is that it’s almost impossible to observe it without in some way touching the goodness in it.  We can celebrate the 4th of July in ways that make a mockery of true love for our country.  We can celebrate Christmas in ways that totally subvert the message of that story.  But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone on Thanksgiving who hadn’t taken at least 30 seconds that day to say they were grateful for something.  Thirty seconds isn’t much, but it’s no less beautiful, being brief.

The other thing I want to mention about this marvelously American holiday is that I think we need to remember more of where it comes from.  No, not the “Pilgrims”—they get more than their fair share of air time (and the implicit anti-Native American racism in their story is the only off-note in an otherwise great holiday for me).  They deserve to be thought of, of course—they didn’t invent the idea of a day of thanksgiving, but we’re certainly inspired by them in some ways today.  If you haven’t read Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates (and you should!  it’s a very brief and easy read, and you’ll be surprised how much you learn, both unexpectedly good and unexpectedly unwelcome, about the Puritans), I don’t think I can adequately summarize it here.  Suffice it to say we should remember them with some gratitude, as well as with a determination not to commit the same mistakes.  But they’re not really where we get our national days of thanksgiving.

The national Thanksgiving begins sporadically when our early Presidents (Washington, Adams, Madison, etc.) declared them.  They weren’t always every year.  There had to be something to be thankful for.  I wish, in some ways, it was still like that.  That Thanksgiving would happen only because we really said to ourselves “Whoa! You know, we’re really grateful for X this year, and we should take a day and acknowledge it!”  But in other ways I’m glad it’s every year, like clockwork, because that too is an acknowledgment.  It acknowledges that no matter how bad the year, we have much to be grateful for.  We have so many people to thank in our lives on a daily basis, spending one day out of 365 to be thankful is almost embarrassingly small as a gesture, in truth.  If there was some way to balance both ideas—the certainty that we’d be thankful with the spontaneity of the bold and surprising proclamation of Thanksgiving—I’d be a fan.

When did we make the shift?  What great year, what year of Jubilee, was so auspicious in America’s history that from that year forward we have observed Thanksgiving every year?  1863.  The mid-point of the Civil War, a year in which thousands upon thousands were killed and maimed, and in which the country remained broken, shattered in two pieces.  From our vantage point we know 1863 was the turning point in the war, but if you look at the newspapers from November 1863, you won’t see it.  They still looked for victory, and had some cause for optimism, but also many reasons to doubt.  But in the midst of all that death and uncertainty, Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation is a work of remarkable hope.  If he had skipped that year, no one would have been shocked.  Plenty of years had been skipped in the country’s history to that point, including the year previous.  So why did 1863 mark a change?

I have no idea.  But I’d like to think this.  I’d like to think it’s because 1863 was the year of the Emancipation Proclamation.  I’d like to think it’s because 1863 was the year of the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln hailed the new birth of freedom.  I’d like to think it’s because Lincoln knew that the war was not a mindless bloodbath—that the valiant sacrifices made by American soldiers were forging a new country in their blood.  The “last measure of devotion” was the final ingredient needed to move the United States one vital step closer to realizing the promise of the Declaration—that all are truly equal from their birth, and that this country is sincerely and vitally dedicated to that confident belief.  You’ll notice from his words that Lincoln does not regret the war.  He is thankful that peace has been preserved in every way with every nation and among all people, with the important exception of the military conflict.  Thanksgiving isn’t just a day to be thankful for the easy times in our lives.  It’s a day that offers up thanks for the crucibles in which we are refined.  It’s a day where we can express gratitude that we are moving towards something greater, and that even some of our most painful passages are seeing us through to something better.

So today, I hope we can carry a little of that around with us—the knowledge of what it means to be a part of this country that annually pauses for the sake of gratefulness, for the sake of the words “thank you”.  Somewhere amid the food and the football and the frantic shopping outings, let’s be thankful not just for what happens on a personal scale, but also for the strides we have made and will make as a country striving for an ideal of justice.  And then let’s get back out there Monday and keep our feet moving in the right direction.


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