Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I love everything about it: the crisp late fall hoodie weather, time spent around the table with family, and sleepy afternoon football games. I love the turkey and stuffing and green bean casserole, and I love staying up late laughing with people who know me better than anyone else in the world, and love me anyway.
Most of all, I love the spirit of Thanksgiving. Quite distinct from the spirit of Christmas, and in some ways opposite of the plastic caricature it has become, Thanksgiving is the one time throughout the year when America seems to pause our incessant whining and take stock of the unbelievable amount of good that we enjoy here in the richest, most powerful, most free and most blessed country in the history of the world.
Shoppers head into Target just after thei doors opened at midnight on Black Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in South Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
It's the one week when conversations with supermarket cashiers aren’t just a series of grunts, and when some people actually hesitate before spilling their complaints on the world.
There’s something beautiful about gratitude that forms the perfect cure for pride, jealousy, fear, and greed all at once, and the week of Thanksgiving – brief as it is – allows us to heal together in a way that even Christmas doesn’t.
Like many Thanksgiving enthusiasts, I am dismayed by its evaporation into Black Friday. Even aside from the shameless product pimping that has overrun the entire weekend, Thanksgiving – arguably the most American holiday on the calendar outside Independence Day – is losing its identity within American culture.
It has become the Poland of the holiday world – divided and conquered by some sort of shady backroom deal between Halloween and Christmas.
Any retailer that doesn’t stock Christmas decorations by Labor Day now refrains only to ensure there’s room for the necessary volume of inflatable ghouls and colorful bags of diabetes, waiting for November 1 to roll around so that they can swap the plastic letters from “Satan” to “Santa.”
Ignored by non-grocery retailers and yawned through by a nation anxious to go gadget hunting the minute it’s over, Thanksgiving is bleeding the last of its life out the doors of every Best Buy and Target in America.
To be perfectly candid, I started writing this article under the headline “Stop Ruining Thanksgiving With Black Friday Sales.”
But as I started voicing my disdain for the naked neglect of the most commercially defenseless holiday outside of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I remembered that business, like government, doesn’t direct public sentiment – it reacts to it.
The truth is that we have ruined Thanksgiving. All of us: retailers, consumers, bargain-hunters and gadget-junkies alike, have so soiled the memory of the Pilgrims’ first holiday that it has ceased to have any more function to us than a national hot-dog-eating contest. And upon cursory inspection, it’s not just Black Friday to blame.
We are a generation of entitled gluttons, who truly don’t know what gratitude means anymore. The word "thanksgiving" rings as hollow as the holiday itself: an empty tradition nullified by the age of commercial humanism. By blindly following our hearts over the years, we’ve developed the kind of me-first mentality that views every good thing as an unhealthy privilege of some sort, and every opportunity as an injury.
In our minds, there is no reason to give, to share, or to be grateful. Every expression is a chance to be offended, and every instance of cooperation is aggression, if not downright cultural genocide. Each year Thanksgiving serves as an opportunity to remind America about the evil, bloodthirsty Puritans who once killed 19 people accused of witchcraft, or to lament the rest of the heartless Europeans who violently exploited the native Americans, leading Thanksgiving to be dubbed a national day of mourning by some.
Apparently, in our rush to read the white guilt between the lines, we forgot to read the lines themselves.
One of the first non-Seuss books my parents read to me growing up was "The Plymouth Settlement," by William Bradford – the account of the Pilgrims written by the first governor of their colony. Sure, the sentences were a page and a half long and the King-James-era English dangled at the edge of my reading comprehension, but some shining parts of our history require no literary flair to embellish their significance.
The first Thanksgiving didn’t occur in a vacuum of boredom and plenty, but was an outpouring of gratitude to the Creator for his provision to a group of frightened and destitute settlers who only a year before had teetered precariously on the edge of starvation.
Not only has America always had much to be thankful for, but until recently, we also knew to whom we owed thanks.
George Washington’s first Thanksgiving proclamation, issued at the behest of Congress a mere six years after the Treaty of Paris ended the fierce and costly Revolutionary War, left no ambiguity surrounding the proper object of the nation’s gratitude. That day – also November 26 – President Washington addressed our thanks to “that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Likewise, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving holiday just a few months after Gettysburg, while the nation still suffered amid a horrific Civil War. Far from a blasé and pretentious recitation of vague niceties, Lincoln addressed humble gratitude to “the Most High God,” “the Almighty Hand,” and “our beneficient Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
Try to separation-of-church-and-state that.
Specific acknowledgement of the divine is the other missing ingredient that has left Thanksgiving tasting as bland to many as my last attempt at a glazed ham. If one refuses to acknowledge Providence, the Creator, God – gratitude simply doesn’t compute. If we cannot see anything beyond the materially human, then all of our thanks must, of necessity, be assigned to ourselves.
See, commercialism hasn’t ruined Thanksgiving, selfishness has.
That’s why Black Friday works. That’s why businesses have incentive to open on Thanksgiving Day, providing relief for thousands of Americans who really didn’t want to spend the day with their families anyway, muttering unfelt prayers to an unknown being to whom they don’t credit any part of their comfort, wealth, or success.
I don’t want to have to explain to my grandkids what Thanksgiving used to be like, before it turned into another Columbus Day, with Turkey.
Let’s retake Thanksgiving, not by merely boycotting businesses (though I think that’s worthwhile too), but by reintroducing thankfulness to the culture.
Take the time to tell a stranger how good your life is. Let your family and your friends know you thank God for them. Realize how many people in the world would do anything just to lay eyes on the feast you’re about to consume. Glance around your house before venturing out on Black Friday, notice the dusty and obsolete remains of last year’s purchases, and clear a space for contentment in your heart once again.
This year, let’s leave Turkey Day and Black Thursday behind, and start celebrating Thanksgiving again.
And if we never stop, so much the better.
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