A remarkable holiday is now before us, and it is one that speaks to our sense of American exceptionalism in a way few holidays do. The event we have mythologized occurred in 1621 and lasted for three days as a group of English Dissenters and Wampanoag Indians came together for a great feast. The idea of a thanksgiving was not new to them. Thanksgivings were days of prayer thanking God for blessings before they were days of feasting. Our Thanksgiving only took on its political and legal form in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln decreed it in the midst of the Civil War.
I would encourage all of us to embrace that mythology and to make it real within our homes this year. It can be a day on which we unashamedly realize our most Rockwellian sentiments, and allow our nostalgia to triumph. It can be a day on which political and familial squabbles subside long enough for us to breathe freely of the crisp autumn air, to take in the scents of a home-cooked meal, to converse with neighbors and old friends and delight in our children, our health, and our good fortune.
The holiday will be celebrated in different ways of course: some will watch the parade or the game on television, or worship, or volunteer; but, it is likely that each of us has something to be thankful for and someone to thank for it. Take the time to thank them. Set aside your pride and fears of awkwardness. Demonstrate to others that you acknowledge you would be less if it were not for them. Make room in your heart, if not your home, for those who have less, and give them cause to give thanks as well.
These moment are so scarce that it gives us all the more reason to mark them well and make them the bearers of cherished memories. The type of day you have is up to you. Eat too much, drag out the board games and the cards; throw the football in the yard until you fingers are numb with cold, and the let the young ones play in the piles of leaves. Build a fire, grab an old novel, put up your feet, and rejoice in the material and immaterial abundance by which you are surrounded.
As you pinch yourself awake to claim that final piece of pie, look to the future and knows that it is also a day of hope. It is a hope, easily mocked, but heartfelt nonetheless, that there will yet be more to be thankful for.
Benjamin Franklin was too cynical when he wrote that, “He who lives on hope, dies fasting.” Hopes may be shattered without shattering hope. Thanksgiving is not a day for despair or tragic thoughts because long may we look forward to the distinct possibility that we will know again all that has ever given men cause to be thankful.
Enjoy your turkey, your family, and wine in good cheer and good company. Realize the myth and revel in gratitude, charity, and hope.
Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South come the pilgrim and guest,
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored,
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before,
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?
- John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), The Pumpkin