Thanksgiving in America, Random Thoughts

Today is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States of America, and it is one of the two uniquely American holidays, besides Independence Day. I don’t mean to say that only America has such holidays (Canada, for example, celebrates both an Independence Day and a Thanksgiving day) but that the flavor of the celebration is very reflective of the American character.

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Perhaps somewhat misleading portrayal of the First Thanksgiving

Unlike the Fourth of July Thanksgiving is a movable feast, being held on the fourth Thursday of November, with the Friday thrown in to make it a four-day weekend. The original national holiday, declared by President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, was held on the last Thursday of November, be it the fourth or fifth; President Franklin Roosevelt in the midst of the Great Depression tried to shift it to always be the second to last Thursday, be it the third or fourth, specifically in order to extend the pre-Christmas shopping season.

Ain’t that American? Create a national day of unifying patriotic prayer during a Civil War, then re-purpose it to encourage people to spend money in the midst of the greatest economic downturn in the country’s history! We are a paradoxical people.

The more ridiculous side of that national contradiction is perfectly expressed by the absurd ritual of the President (and some Governors) ‘pardoning’ Thanksgiving turkeys, sending them off to long comfortable lives in petting zoos, while of course continuing to devour their less lucky (or perhaps just less photogenic) compatriots. The arbitrary and ridiculous nature of the event was made all too manifest by that mistress of all things arbitrary and ridiculous, then Governor of Alaska (before she quit) Sarah Palin:

(Got to love the “friend to all creatures large and small” line from the woman with the hobby of shooting wolves from a helicopter with high powered rifles!)

There are legends that this tradition started with Lincoln, and more credible ones that pin it on Truman, but the earliest actual record of it happening start with President George H.W. Bush in 1989 – and that, too, is a very American thing, assuming a long history for things which are actually very recent. Witness the furor over the proposed removal of ‘Under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance which American schoolchildren recite, a phrase which wasn’t even there in the original, having been inserted in 1954.

The originally prescribed flag salute. Srsly!

And as the picture shows, some traditions are quietly left in the past and forgotten…

Some are transmogrified and evolve, though. Thanksgiving was undeniably at first a religiously inspired holiday, set up to give thanks to a God for all the things he’d provided, some of which were even specified in the proclamation Seward wrote and Lincoln signed:

…other [bounties] have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.

It was of course very important for Seward to specify that thanks were due to God for all those additional bounties beyond the actual ground and sky, since to all appearances they were all entirely the works of human beings, his fellow citizens in particular.

Gratitude is one of the nicer aspects of our human nature, and it admits of a much wider purview than all thanks being due to some God, and only to that God. While religious people still give their thanks to the otherworldy (generally in the private, non-proselytizing way which does them no discredit at all) Thanksgiving has come to be a far more secular affair, and a far more positive one for that.

I love the way Americans at this time of year are more giving to the hungry; the coming Christmas is usually referred to as the ‘giving season’ but it is mostly to themselves and their families and friends they give. It’s at Thanksgiving that people tend to really get involved in food drives to feed hungry strangers. I’m not one of those in need, but I’m thankful to those of my fellows who donate food, money, shelter and clothing to those who need it.

I’m also thankful for the more personal spirit of sharing that comes over Americans this time of year. I’m a single guy who lives pretty far from all my relatives (other than my son), and I don’t think I’ve ever had a Thanksgiving when I didn’t get at least one invitation to celebrate the day in someone else’s home. That’s perhaps not so remarkable when it is my friends who invite me (as some of them invariably do), but when I’ve been in strange cities either because I just moved or because I was traveling on business – which has accounted for a goodly number of the twenty-odd years I’ve lived in the States – some stranger has always invited me in.


I do love me some turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, cob corn, ham, mash and gravy, and I’ve even learned to love cranberry sauce, in moderation. The other secular aspects of Turkey Day don’t much appeal to me personally – I don’t much care about a the very American spectacles of parades, or American football games, or shopping extravaganzas per se (though bargains are always nice). Nothing wrong with any of it, it’s just not me.

I do like the spirit of giving and sharing, of being thankful for your friends and your family though. Like the food on the menu, it’s not as if we can’t have the caring and gratitude any time we want to, but it’s nice to have a special day for it as well, and I’m glad and grateful we do.

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

Turkey - It's Not Just For Autumn Anymore


~ by B.T. Murtagh on November 26, 2009.

One Response to “Thanksgiving in America, Random Thoughts”

  1. Awesome post!

    I’ve been catching up on your blog this morning, and keep looking for the “like” button. Facebook certainly has made me lazy. :-p

    Good stuff, as always!

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