Thanksgiving Day is becoming a lost holiday; not only is it losing ground to the overwhelming pull of Christmas shopping, but I believe that the rationale for the holiday itself is fast disappearing as well. For this reflection, the history of the American holiday of Thanksgiving is not as important as the shift in attitude pervading our culture. My father and his generation who grew up during the Depression wanted for many things in their lives. If the family could keep a roof over their heads and food on the table so that the children went to bed without hunger pains, they considered they were doing all right. Many people had no cars, even though they might work on the production line in the auto industry. When life was harder and existence threatened – first economically by the Depression then by the coming of the World War – people seem to learn how to value the basics and essentials of life. People could be thankful to have any job, not worrying about whether it offered them “fulfillment” or some other higher but more abstract value. The range of foods and beverages which compete for our palate were unknown except to the very wealthy. Bread, starches, soups, and perhaps a little meat from time to time were more appreciated than the luxuries we take for granted now. We might perhaps conclude from this that a thankful spirit is more likely to be found among those who have less than among those who are completely filled and satiated.
The perspective of earlier generations also seems to have found its center in love of family, in patriotism, and above all in religious faith. A belief in God was widespread and perhaps was held by the majority of people, regardless of which religious tradition they belong to. The understanding that God as our Creator and the provider of all good things (which is an apt description of the God found in the Bible) puts God at the center of everything. As our brilliant, radiant sun sits at the center of the solar system, radiating heat and light to the earth and making life possible from day to day, so our faith sees God as the source and sustainer of life. From that perspective, a spirit of thankfulness would be a natural response within us. At this point in the year, when agricultural harvests have been gathered in, it would be natural to think God for the produce and rewards of our labor, lending itself to setting apart a special day for Thanksgiving.
Returning to the analogy of the solar system, however, our current cultural perspective is more like the ancient view that the earth is the center of all things, with the sun and other bodies just circling around it. A culture of plenty measured by the amount of goods and services produced and consumed does not consider our relationship to God as the measure of our human worth; instead, all too often people are measured and valued (or devalued, degraded, and disregarded) based upon economic standards. Hand-in-hand with that is the belief that what I have results solely from what I have worked for and earned myself – it is mine and I claim both possession of it and the credit for obtaining it. Perhaps I was lucky in finding the right job, but otherwise all things derive from my own work and effort. Why therefore should we be thankful? You can see how this perspective based on an economic model of the person elevates the self to its own center, while at the same time creating within us a desire for more and more to consume or own. It also engenders within our hearts a contempt for those who have not reached the same place we have. Ideas such as the intrinsic or God-given dignity of all people, a positive regard for (let alone love of) our neighbor, and showing gratitude for the blessings that we have all disappear.
Thankfulness actually requires a degree of humility, for if I am not self-sufficient and solely responsible for what I have based on my own achievements, then I must acknowledge that these are gifts or blessings from God. Unless I am willing to grant God His due place at the center and recognize that all that I am and all that I have come from God, I will never know what true thankfulness is.
We can see then why Thanksgiving seems to have lost its place in our national life. To be sure, it is still a day of feasting, celebration, and the ingathering of families, but the immediate associations are excessive eating, football games, and the kick off (nope unintended) of the season of buying and consuming. The picture of an extended family feasting together, enjoying one another’s company, and giving thanks for the good things they have received has sadly become a black and white snapshot stuck in an old photo album from years past. The night before Thanksgiving, for example, is well documented as the busiest time in bars and taverns across the country as returning college students and other young adults gather with their friends, rather than the previous expectation that they would visit with older relatives to begin the holiday. And the day after Thanksgiving is aptly referred to as “Black Friday,” because people cannot wait to leave their families and feasting to start buying and partake of sales as soon as possible.
Taking a page out of the Prayer Book, we remember that the word Eucharist is Greek for “Thanksgiving.” The service begins with the dialogue between the celebrant and the people:
Lord be with you!
And also with you
Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
It is indeed good and right and proper to give thanks to God in all times and in all places for God’s goodness towards us, starting with the fact that we are alive and present, and that God has seen us through so many trials and heartbreaks, and has given us so many gifts and blessings. Our weekly Eucharistic service is one expression of this understanding of the relationship between ourselves and our God. The same impulse and humble response within our hearts can help us celebrate this Thanksgiving Day in a manner which sets it aside as holy and acceptable to the Lord. I can think of no more apt words to conclude this meditation than the collect for Thanksgiving Day:
Almighty and gracious father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (BCP, 246)