Yesterday was the fourth Thursday in November, the day we recognize as Thanksgiving. Like many – though pointedly not all – Americans, the author was fortunate to be in the company of loved ones. As anticipated eagerly, the centerpiece of the event was a carefully prepared, sumptuous dinner. People laughed, teased, and caught each other up with their news. At evening’s end, they sat by a fire telling stories and sharing pictures. Although no one stated this directly, it was clear that everyone felt somehow affirmed and reinvigorated, both for who they have been and for who they will be. Then the visitors got in their cars and went home.
Today is another special day, so-called Black Friday. No government has proclaimed this a time of national consolidation; most of us are back at work. But tens of millions are bustling about the stores. Others are on-line. Officially – though unofficially it never ends – the Christmas season is underway. Shoppers dream of special bargains; retailers pray that months of red ink will end. Thank heavens that this year’s date, November 23, is the earliest the event can be.
Such goings-on should make us ponder the character of our country’s celebrations. Who are we as a people? What energizes us? What values do we hold dear?
In any society, public holidays are special moments dedicated to answering the above questions. For the most important of those occasions, workers – at least government workers – have the day off. Schools, post offices, and many other public services are closed. The stock market pauses; banks lock their doors. In the U.S., there are 10 “official” federal holidays:
New Year’s Day (Jan. 1)
Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (3rd Monday in January)
Washington’s Birthday (3rd Monday in February)
Memorial Day (last Monday in May)
Independence Day (July 4)
Labor Day (first Monday in September)
Columbus Day (first Monday in October)
Veterans Day (November 11)
Thanksgiving (4th Thursday in November)
Christmas Day (December 25)
As the reader can see, the holidays are of different sorts. Two celebrate the sacrifices of soldiers; one, of working people. There is remembrance of a president, an explorer, and a social reformer. A day of nation founding is marked; so is a key religious holiday. One holiday (with its preceding night of revelry) is just a calendar beginning. Finally, there is Thanksgiving.
Other publicly celebrated times – such as Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, and Halloween – are not federally recognized. Nor is that mammoth sporting event, the Super Bowl.
Although U.S. holidays are distinctive in their purposes and origins – and in the political wrangles that led to their enshrinement – those differences tend to be blurred or assimilated by the general culture of the society, and particularly by its commercial culture. Put simply, most are now occasions to shop, travel, and be entertained.
Contrast this with some not so distant centuries in European history, when holidays were indeed holy days. Sometimes they featured parades down thoroughfares, with key social groups claiming their positions in line. Celebrants gathered in common spaces or churchyards. Under religious auspices, people made their own fun, romping together. Different ages, genders, occupations, and social ranks mixed. Childlike behaviors were encouraged; so were minor acts of disrespect and impiety. There were sports and games; food and drink were abundant. In such ways, local communities proclaimed their identities. In an age of arduous existence, holidays were times to relax and refresh oneself – and to explore alternative value systems that challenged secular hierarchies and their codes of conduct.
Pointedly then, holidays are times to stop and reconsider the character of one’s life, to dabble in unusual behaviors, and to dream of new ways of living. Routines, particularly work routines, should pause. Normally dispersed people should unite. At such moments, the present swings loose from its normal placement in the scheme of things. The past blooms. And the future takes on newly imagined themes.
For such reasons, let people remember fallen heroes, ponder founding principles, and honor the groups that continue to make society vital. It is no shame to mix those solemnities with youthful exuberance.
Our contemporary holidays take on some of these meanings. Most of us are capable, if only for a few moments, of honoring the ancestors who made possible our current patterns of existence. Despite our mythology of being a fiercely individualistic country, we are a social people who love to be in the presence of those we care about. We are pleased to be “off work.” We enjoy eating and drinking.
Thanksgiving is one of the times that shows us at our best. It is also, and not coincidentally, one of the least commercialized of the honored days. To be sure, grocery stores are in overdrive; one can buy decorative items. Still, the event is largely a blip between the much more heavily commercialized times of Halloween and Christmas. To be sure, there are parades, like the famous one sponsored by Macy’s; but these are clearly run-ups to Christmas with Santa’s float at the rear. The same is to be said for televised sports. There is a profusion of these, but they are not the biggest of Big Games, which come later in the year.
Let us acknowledge that public acts of “giving thanks” are important, even profound matters. When food supplies are scarce or problematic, as in many societies historically, the blessings of a good harvest are very real. Thanks are offered, in part to the human workers who produced the bounty but mostly to nature’s god or gods, who allowed the community to maintain its precarious existence. In that sense, the 1621 fall feast of the Massachusetts pilgrims was not distinctive – other settling groups had done the same – except for its joining of Native Americans with the scruffy immigrants.
How did Thanksgiving become a national holiday? In an attempt to build nationhood and steel military resolve, the Continental Congress formally encouraged individual colonies to have days of thanksgiving during the Revolutionary War. These events – conceived as “national days of prayer, humiliation, and thanksgiving” continued after independence. In 1789, George Washington proclaimed the first uniformly recognized day (Thursday, November 26) to thank God for the blessings granted the young republic.
Several subsequent Presidents (Jefferson being a conspicuous exception) continued that pattern, although different days and times of year were involved. The practice then became inconsistent, with states taking the lead.
As the nation lurched toward Civil War, Sara Josepha Hale, the editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book –and the author of an 1823 novel that featured a thanksgiving dinner – campaigned for Thanksgiving’s reinstitution as a national holiday. In response, President Lincoln designated Thursday, November 26, 1863, as such a day. Again, the focus was on gratitude to God. Pragmatically, it was a claim for national unity during a period of fierce division.
Lincoln’s precedent – effectively, naming the fourth Thursday in November – became the model for present times. Franklin Roosevelt did alter that pattern during the years 1939-1941, primarily to extend the Christmas shopping season. However, there was much opposition to “Franksgiving,” and in late 1941 Roosevelt signed a congressional resolution making the fourth Thursday as the official holiday.
Have the meanings of Thanksgiving shifted through the centuries? The earliest ceremonies focused on gratitude to God. They gathered community members for a feast. They emphasized that a time of great trial had come and gone. The calendar dates of the events were unimportant.
After Lincoln’s initial proclamation (which linked Thanksgiving to the stresses of war), the national custom became date-set and thus disconnected from any specific tests or trials. In the fashion of an officially sanctioned custom, local communities across the country were encouraged to do the event in their own ways. Parades, festivities, and football games were associated with the extended weekend of the holiday. The specifically religious focus of the holiday softened. Moreover, and as Roosevelt’s moving of the date made clear, there was increasing recognition that this was now the start of the Christmas shopping season,
It would perhaps be unrealistic to expect that a commercialized society like ours should not commercialize its holidays. Time off means time to shop. A day at home is an occasion to watch television and visit websites, all framed by commercial messaging. Go a large sporting event – or just watch one on TV – and sense the degree to which our enjoyments are “sponsored.” We find comfort in the companionship of successful products, or brand names. Their sole ambition is to please us; their possession proclaims that we have “made it.”
Again, who can blame us for seeking our pleasure-dose, for aspiring to be gratified? We want to center our thoughts on the wonderful meal before us. We treasure the support of the tablemates who make us feel good about ourselves. We hope that our favorite teams will be on TV – and that they will win. What feels better than a soothing drink and a warm fire?
Whatever the legitimacy of these satisfactions – and who can deny them? – we should remember that Thanksgiving is intended to turn our thoughts in the opposite direction. It is an occasion to thank those who make our lives – at all their moments – possible. Some of that thanks goes rightly to our families, however checkered our relationships with them may be. Remember our good friends, the ones who stand by us in all circumstances. But beyond those carefully maintained circles others should be noted. Community members, once such an important part of people’s existence, continue to shape the local worlds in which we operate. Co-workers; church, team, and club members; fellow enthusiasts of our hobbies and moral causes all contribute to our sense of stability and purpose. Be clear that we also find support from people we do not know well – who build, repair, and otherwise service our existence. There are the unseen and unappreciated millions who contribute to our country and ensure its continuity. Beyond that, let those who have some awareness of the sacred foundations of our modest lives express that gratitude as well.
In short, the purpose of holidays (and Thanksgiving is just one of these) is to acknowledge indebtedness to others. Do not confuse gratification – the feeling of the full belly, warm fire, or comforting pat on the back – with that sense of willing obligation. We live as we do because others have made that existence possible. Let other times be devoted to self-encouragement, even self-love. At holidays, we thank those who have widened our realms of possibility.