(first published November 22, 2012)
Thanksgiving Day is an embarrassing holiday for the atheists. Whom shall one thank?
Nonbelievers first turned this day of formal national prayer into a rekindling of an earlier bliss betwixt Pilgrims and Indians. A little rewriting, and secularists turned the feast into a memorial of Pilgrim settlers thanking the native-born Americans for their ecological wisdom that allowed us a full table and survival through the winters. As usual, the guilt-ridden white folk reminded us of something true but missed the real story.
The Pilgrim parable was soon debunked by Indian activists who reminded the well-meaning storytellers that the only gifts white men gave Indians were smallpox blankets. "Who wants to celebrate that, white man?"
Instead of returning to the first Congress or Washington or Lincoln to get the holy day back on track as a civic duty to God, our adaptable consumer culture had a new answer. Let the appetites be sacralized! There was a surge to elevate not "Whom We Thank" but "What We Eat." Turkey Day was proclaimed!
No more messy cross-cultural narratives. Instead of asking that our sins be forgiven and as a nation we bow to God, a turkey was pardoned and the whole affair was consummated in a next-day orgy of shopping called Black Friday. That spin-off Feast Day is demanding a vigil service of its own, which may drive the whole embarrassment of public thanksgiving to God back in the memory hole where school prayer now abides.
Contrast our evolving celebration of Black Friday Eve with George Washington’s understanding of Thanksgiving Day in the first sentence of his 1789 Proclamation:
“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to recognize the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor…”Contrast Turkey Day with the content of his prayer:
“And also that we may unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions -- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually…”This is a day as a nation we are supposed to perform a religious duty -- to ask forgiveness and give thanks to a Divine Ruler who governs not only the lives of men, but the public communal forms of men: the nations. That is what Congress requested Washington to declare; and that is what this national day of prayer for forgiveness and thanksgiving is still meant to be. Let us assemble in our houses of worship, at community kitchens, and at our family tables. Let us, as fellow Americans, give thanks to God; for the nation that prays together stays together.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out Andrew Lynch's essay.
And the Thanksgiving proclamation of our First Continental Congress. A nice historical reminder from War on the Rocks that Thanksgiving is a Holiday forged in national wars.