At what other time of the year do families really come together in the way they do on Thanksgiving?
It’s not that I don’t love giving thanks—in fact, I really do love it. And, I especially love how we Americans do it. If I had my way, we’d have cranberry relish, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and turkey five times to six times to twenty times to… well, you get the point.
It’s really nice to know that no matter how pagan or, worse, secular we become as a society, almost all Americans accept the idea that the “holiday season” is a time to do good. And, all our stories of the holiday season and, especially, Christmas, revolve, in some way or another, around a miracle of love and goodness. Amen.
I also can’t help but think about the very origins of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. And, it truly is a “national” holiday, in the way Independence Day is not.
Independence Day is a republican celebration and not, properly understood, a national one. In its very core principles, the reasons for celebrating Independence Day are as much human and humane as they are anything else. They can be celebrated equally in Boston or Cape Town or Seoul. They celebrate not the creation of the American nation, but the recognition of the natural rights of the human person.
Thanksgiving, though, is really our national holiday. And, yet, it’s a regional holiday that has become a national one.
In the post-Declaration era, roughly 1783-1810, New Englanders did much to assure the “New England Way” became the “American Way.” Scholars intentionally recorded the history of the American Revolution with a New England bias. It was during this time period that New Englanders renamed the “Plymouth Combination” the “Mayflower Compact,” to make it seem more palatable to less Christian ears.* During the same time period, New Englander Mercy Otis Warren wrote her magisterial two-volume history of the American Revolution, and John Adams disputed Thomas Jefferson’s role as the most important author of the Declaration.
Many Confederate officers tried to do the same for the South almost immediately following the defeat of Lee’s army in April 1865. To a degree, it worked, as had the earlier New England efforts.
President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order of 1863 nationalizing the New England Pilgrim dinner of 1621 with Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit, and others makes a lot of sense when viewed politically. Only nine years old in 1863, the Republican party, really, still was in its infancy. Its base of support—and, hence, Lincoln’s base of support—came from New England Puritan stock either living in New England or having migrated west through the Great Lakes. Once a person traveled south of Indianapolis or Cincinnati, he not only entered into non-New England ethnic stock, but also into non-Lincoln territory, whether that territory was in Union or Confederate hands.
Symbolically, Lincoln’s executive order tied the new nation—only a month before the Gettysburg Address proclaimed it was to born again through “a new birth of freedom”—to the “good” natives who had offered freely hospitality to the suffering Congregationalists trying to exist in a harsh, new world.
George Washington had issued a similar declaration of Thanksgiving, but he had not made it an annual event.
As much as I respect Lincoln, this kind of playing and toying with religious and historical symbolism for the purpose of nationalism and, essentially, the creation of a civic religion, makes me very uncomfortable. It has way too much of the manipulative in it for me to feel at ease.
One only has to recall the advertisements that were issued on the Obama administration’s website encouraging families to sign up for the Affordable Health Care Act, or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plea to discuss gun control at the family dinner table to see that, from its origins in Lincoln’s 1863 order, Thanksgiving has been quite political.
Thanksgiving, though, has also pervaded all spheres of religious life. Attend a Catholic Mass on Thursday and you’re sure to hear, at some point during the service, a rendition of “America, The Beautiful,” a not-so-subtle plea for imperialism and Manifest Destiny:
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
Even around the Blessed Sacrament such words are sung! I cringe.
However. And, it’s a big however.
At what other time of the year do families really come together in the way they do on Thanksgiving? I have so many great memories of those things I mentioned above: turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Even more so of great conversations with my brothers, my grandparents, and my mom. Even more so of that late afternoon game of hoops in the driveway or frisbee in the backyard. A long walk in Sand Hills State Park late into the afternoon and early evening. The crushing of nearly every one in my family in Trivial Pursuit and… being crushed by nearly every one in Risk!
Now, of course, my wife, my in laws, my kids, and I make our own memories. So, I’m not excusing the political monstrosities in D.C. for manipulating this day for political gain. Such manipulation is never acceptable. Still, I’m happy to let them play their games, as long as they leave the Birzers alone to play ours. Thank you, God. I hear good food, good conversation, good games, and the annual viewing of Home Alone (before bed) calling me.
*See the author’s essay “Mayflower Compact or Plymouth Combination” here.