I’ll wager that most people in the world, when polled “Which is the national holiday of America?” would reply July 4 — Independence Day. That may be true in a political sense, but I propose our true national holiday is Thanksgiving, celebrated each year on the last Thursday of November.
Nearly all US citizens acknowledge the Thanksgiving holiday, without rancor or grumblings about having a holiday ‘imposed’ on us. People wish each other “Happy Thanksgiving” with no fear of political incorrectness. In a sense, it’s the perfect American secular holiday. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, Thanksgiving is a national holiday with the soul of a Holy Day.
Some historical background: Thanksgiving emerged from the most gutting event in US history – its Civil War. At a time when national leadership could have been vengeful and bitter, President Abraham Lincoln instead issued this proclamation. And its enduring fruits have become what we know today as the Thanksgiving Holiday.
Unlike other national holidays such as, say, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is not seen as just another federally sanctioned personal day for lazing around & troving sales (though some do celebrate in that fashion to be sure). There is an implied expectation — if not outright responsibility — to do something outside of the daily routine in honor of Thanksgiving, be it baking pies all day, carving the turkey, enduring relations with a polite smile & closed lips, or livetweeting football while chowing on Indian takeout & reminiscing on Thanksgiving holidays past. [I endorse this latter option especially.]
While Independence Day exudes the Spirit of America, Thanksgiving encapsulates its Heart and Soul. For many it is a literal homecoming — physically, emotionally, spiritually. In this Age of Globalization, it may be the one and only time of the year folks actually see their kinsfolk. Which is not to say that all is sweetness and light — to the contrary, I suspect a majority face the holiday with a mixture of anticipation and dread, to varying proportions. As it should be.
Having grown up entirely as a Yank, it’s strange to me that some of my international acquaintances are puzzled by the concept of the Thanksgiving holiday. To me it’s the most intuitive thing in the world: the human tendency to give thanks. It’s a sign of our radical interdependence (cf. definition of human beings as [dependent] rational animals) on the world and each other.
Thanksgiving is a ‘safe’ way to acknowledge that we neither can nor should do everything on our own. I say ‘safe’ because the concept of acknowledging one’s interdependence runs counter to our constant social message to be “independent and autonomous”. My pessimistic misanthropic side is tempted to view Thanksgiving as a veiled collective defense mechanism from fully acknowledging that as individuals we ALWAYS — to varying degrees — depend on others. It pays lip service to this truth, made palatable by pumpkin pie & Cool Whip.
But I digress into pesky philosophe stuff again. Back to Thanksgiving holiday.
The concept of going back to one’s roots, in addition to giving thanks, has universal appeal. Some years ago, I joined the throngs travelling on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving — the busiest travel day of the year in the US. Sitting next to me was one of the European movie producers of The Italian Job (which I had not seen, but I nevertheless nodded at him with my “oh, that’s nice” smile when he mentioned it). He was in US on business related to promoting the movie. Apparently, one of the Americans on his production crew warned him sternly: DO NOT TRAVEL on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Dismissing this as a remark of typical American hyperbole, he booked the flight anyway. The look of disbelieving regret on his face after relating that story confessed that he had seen the error of his ways.
As for me, I am grateful this year to be writing about such a noble holiday. And though I’m not physically with my family this year, I’m still compelled to present my list of “Things for which I am grateful”, customarily recited before dinner. So here is my 2011 Thanksgiving litany:
- I am grateful for my immediate & extended family, as well as my progenitors, for giving my soul bodily existence and an historical context in which to dwell in this world.
- I am grateful for all the blessings bestowed on my family through the years — through the good, bad, and unsure times all families experience. Profound gratitude to my family for its perdurance.
- I am grateful for my dear, dear friends who endure patiently my idiosyncracies and faults, and whose example makes me a better person.
- I am supremely grateful for my involvement in music — the talent given to me that I hope I give back manifold, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
- I’m grateful for the opportunity to work, for ora et labora, unworthy field laborer I am.
- I am grateful for new friends, stateside and abroad, bound by passion for the sport of professional cycling — they have inspired me to write again. I thank you.
And now on to the “enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union” to which President Lincoln’s idea of the Thanksgiving holiday aspires. With pumpkin pie & Cool Whip.
A very Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.