Religion

For Reasons Good and Sad, Thanksgiving Is Now Our Greatest Holiday

The Tom Turkey float makes its way down 6th Ave during the 91st Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, N.Y., November 23, 2017. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters )
Because everyone appreciates the power of gratitude, but also because, in our secular culture, the appeal of Christmas is receding.

It’s truly hard to find anyone who dislikes Thanksgiving. Yes, there are those who try to hijack the holiday as an opportunity to take on the allegedly ubiquitous “angry uncle,” but I somehow suspect that even the woke Millennials who claim to be spoiling for a fight largely lay down their arms the instant the turkey is served.

There are also certainly people who can’t enjoy Thanksgiving because of personal or family challenges. There are too many broken and dysfunctional families in this country, but the rise of “Friendsgiving” has freed countless Americans to spend time with the people who enrich their lives the most.

Thanksgiving benefits from the sheer simplicity and beauty of the concept and execution. Give thanks together. Break bread together. I’ve never in my life met anyone of any faith (or no faith at all) who didn’t appreciate the power of gratitude. And the joy of a shared meal is one of the more universal cultural phenomena. It’s hard to think of a holiday more suited to a multi-faith, multi-ethnic nation than a simple day of thanksgiving.

Moreover, there is something undeniably poignant and deeply meaningful about the true origin of our national holiday.

The Thanksgiving we practice is rooted much less in the celebration of the Pilgrim harvest and much more in Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of October 3, 1863, inviting his fellow citizens to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

By declaring a period of Thanksgiving in a period of ultimate national crisis, Lincoln grounded the day as no mere celebration of often temporary and fleeting prosperity and joy but instead as a time of reflection and connection — even in deepest adversity. He gave it weight and depth that now make it the high holy day of America’s civic religion. Thanksgiving is the day that virtually defines “E pluribus unum.”

At the same time, however, Thanksgiving is gaining in national hearts in part because Christmas is receding. That’s a shame.

As a fundamental idea, celebrating the birth of the Savior of humanity, of the Word made flesh, the “light of all mankind,” is an event rivaled only by the celebration of His triumph over death in Resurrection weekend. Yet the very social transformation that makes Thanksgiving more unifying is rendering Christmas less universal, and sometimes more divisive.

After all, how does a specifically religious holiday endure when fewer Americans believe in the specific religion? According to the Pew Research Center, only 56 percent of Americans believe in the God of the Bible. So, for almost half of all Americans, Christmas truly is just another holiday — but it’s a burst of days off that carry with them some rather specific (and often quite expensive) obligations. Even for Christian Americans, while it carries the religious meaning, it’s also laden with secular tasks.

I can’t remember exactly when the phrase “Christmas season” started conjuring in me a vague sense of dread. I think it was likely in my young professional days, when I looked at the calendar and saw it filling up with professional responsibilities — how many client holiday parties did I have to attend? How many client gifts did I need to purchase? When was I going to find time for family shopping? What was our budget for gifts?

And late Christmas morning, when the kids had opened all their presents, we’d attended all the parties, and it was time to carve into (according to my family’s tradition) the Christmas ham, was that joy I felt? Or was it also more than a little relief?

The silly culture war around Christmas — “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays”? — is a reminder not just of the frequent pettiness of our polarization (really, can a well-intentioned holiday greeting offend?) but also of the loss of faith that we Christians rightly lament. It’s as if once per year we’re reminded that our nation is changing in ways that should cause believers in Christ deep distress.

Tomorrow we’ll gather as one nation — united in gratitude — but on Friday a season begins that means very different things to different people. The transition is a symbol of our country’s challenge. We are one national people increasingly comprising different faiths, or no faith at all. In any nation, a religious transformation is often a wrenching transformation. How we respond to that challenge will define our nation for generations.

Fortunately, however, the history surrounding Thanksgiving reminds us that we’ve endured through times far more divisive than today. We have been through the fire and persevered. And for that we should be thankful indeed.

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