Can we recover the original meaning of Thanksgiving?
What? Your Christmas tree hasn’t been up for a week yet? Surely your home is ablaze with red and green and yellow lights? Like the neighbors’ houses?
Sad (as our president might declare if he gave the matter any thought). Not as sad maybe as the eclipse of Thanksgiving in the mad rush to Christmas: wreaths cheerfully bedecking front doors, tree lots burgeoning everywhere, gift lists lengthening at the behest of merchants with such-a-deal-for-you.
At the YMCA some days ago, observing the appearance in the lobby of a fully bedizened Christmas tree, I remarked to a staff member: “Huh?” “We canceled Thanksgiving,” she deadpanned.
Maybe, just maybe, before our national day of thanks tumbles down the same memory hole as Millard Fillmore’s birthday, we could reflect on the intent behind the occasion: namely, the offering of thanks and gratitude for blessings received.
Is the problem, currently, that we just can’t hold back the Yuletide spirit anymore? Can’t wait another minute to hum “Rudolph” and “Frosty” or hear the unreformed and dismissive Scrooge bark, “Humbug!”?
Or is the problem that in our time the compiling of objects and occasions for which to be thankful is viewed by many as an unpromising enterprise: a certain ritual about it, but not much basic joy. Too many killers hatching and carrying out their plots against innocent life; too many family breakups and political fissures; too much disrespect and malice and indecency on open exhibition in public life.
The contemplation of it all can overwhelm: blotting out the inclination for much more, on the final Thursday of November, than a juicy wing-cum-beaujolais, followed by a football game, or all at the same time.
Such tiny occasions are in themselves opportunities for, at the very least, grateful bobbing of the chin. But the larger intent behind Thanksgiving cries out for wider recognition. The intent is that we should assess, with deliberation, the very real blessings that have come our way since the last Thanksgiving. And that we should then do one of two things: offer satisfied smiles or — such was the hope of our national leaders — give due thanks to God as the author of all genuine blessings.
The God connection with the good things of life is less evident to many contemporary American than our leaders expected when they formally (after much foregoing informality) declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. Many of today’s ancients grew up singing — yea, verily, in public school! — “God our maker doth provide/All our wants to be supplied.” That was the spirit of the thing. The Lord had provided; harvests were in; winter loomed. Such satisfactions as we had received were ripe for requiting with prayer and joy.
Well. That was before the Age of Devin Patrick Kelley, who seemingly made himself, in his own eyes, a god strong and brutal enough to replace the old God of mercy and love. He shot up the old God’s home, slaughtering many of those gathered there.
Such, maybe, are the terms of a strange new world — hate your neighbor; do commit adultery; do steal and kill, using firearms as often as necessary.
Maybe such are the new terms, and, again, maybe not, in that Devin Patrick Kelley proved nothing about the Lord God Almighty save that humans are capable, goodness knows why and how, of coldly turning their backs on Him.
By so doing they ignore the divine gift of freedom in which our nation has always basked — human freedom, always ready for enlargement and perfection, yet affording amazing opportunities to experience love, peace, patience, joy, and all the blessings that distinguish free men and women from slugs.
Such are — or were — the blessings meant for recounting at Thanksgiving, before tree limbs blossom with lights. All of which blessings seem eligible, if not downright required, for general recounting. No trick to it, really. We sit down and do it, whether with clasped hands or not, putting aside even kitchen smells for a few transcendent moments of knowing life in its fullness and beauty.
William Murchison is at work on a book about strengthening America’s endangered moral foundations.
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