It’s poignant that in these unique times, during which the very foundations of American republicanism are subject to transformative interpretation in Washington, our uniquely American holiday is also battling an identity crisis.
The particulars that make Thanksgiving especially enjoyable-it’s relatively uncommercialized, food focused and religiously nondenominational-make it easily eradicable as well.
Politically, there are few powerful lobbyists on Thanksgiving’s side. Economically, both bookend holidays, Halloween and Christmas, offer more retail potential. Even theologically, while there’s still a near-universal belief in God, doctrinal disagreements run rampant.
Moreover, the foes of the traditional Thanksgiving themes are many. Historical revisionists renounce any recounting of the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast that doesn’t include a context of American oppression. Secularists are happy to let spooks and Santa overshadow a purely religious holiday. And a consumerist economy, which worships only consumer spending, can hardly be blamed for trying to trip the holiday revenue spike sooner in the calendar every year.
Between the ever-earlier onslaught of Christmas and the newfound commercialism of Halloween, Thanksgiving has a tiny window for its tough assignment as a restorer of perspective. Of all the things lacking in today’s American civilization, perspective is perhaps what we need most.
It’s clear, here in the 21st century, that the debate over thanking God or thanking goodness is more pronounced than at any other time, but that’s really a secondary issue. The larger question involves our general attitude about the things in life we value. Our forefathers counted them as blessings. Our children are taught to treat them as entitlements.
Only one page separates the words “gratitude” and “greed” in my Concise Oxford Dictionary, but their meanings in terms of yesterday’s Thanksgiving observance and our nation’s tomorrow are worlds apart. The former literally epitomizes the holiday’s spirit; gratitude is the quality of thankfulness. And although we normally associate greed with money, its true definition relates more specifically to an excessive appetite, whether for food, wealth or other consumption.
In a global context, there’s no escaping the conclusion that we should be an eternally grateful citizenry. We live like kings compared to residents of most other countries. There are billions of people who can’t even fathom a day in the life of a middle-class American, with our abundance of necessities and superfluous pleasures.
Why do we deserve so much more than them? We don’t. Among fellow Homosapiens, Americans have no inherent superiority. It’s only by the grace of God (or whatever other source might be in popular vogue now) that any of us are born American citizens.
Grace, getting more than one deserves, is a gift, and the proper response is gratitude. Instead, there’s a collective national urge to take it for granted. There’s no slope more slippery than the one that connects failing to appreciate a gift to a feeling of expectation and entitlement.
It’s the lure of what once was called being spoiled. Today it could be likened to a greed of so-called rights, which are really nothing more than various goods or services the government declares to be entitlements.
In essence, Thanksgiving should be a day of restoration and reconciliation, which are appropriately the matters that fueled the first celebration back in 1621. Even a plentiful harvest at Plymouth Plantation would hardly have tempered the loss of half its population during the previous harsh winter. Using Katrina-era rationale, the Pilgrims should have been looking to sue the London Merchant Adventurers, the investors who financed their trip, over their misfortunes.
Looking back, most official Thanksgiving proclamations have been born of trying times like Plymouth’s. President George Washington’s first proclamation followed the ratification of the Constitution. Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday during the depths of the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date in the midst of the Great Depression on the unsettling eve of World War II.
But in all those instances and more, Americans were led to give thanks, even in times of despair, not to lament what government wasn’t “doing” for them.
Thomas Jefferson considered education essential to liberty and self-government. The Colonial assumption was that a complete education included instruction about philosophies compatible with self government. Experience in all walks of life (sports especially comes to mind) has proved that the wrong attitude can wreck even the best expertise and talent.
Thanksgiving is something of a barometer on our national attitude, which is arguably as vital to liberty as education. As its spirit of gratitude wanes against an emboldened sense of greed and entitlement, a paraphrase of Jefferson’s 1816 word of warning comes to mind: If a nation expects to be ungrateful and free, it expects what never was and never will be.