The final assembly at school before the Thanksgiving Holiday had concluded. As in previous years, we students put on a presentation about the Pilgrims and that first day they recognized for solemn Thanksgiving. And they had much for which to be thankful – mostly at the hands of their neighbors the Native Americans who had rescued them from likely starvation. This program, which our parents attended, always concluded with the following hymn:
It never occurred to me that Thanksgiving day had not been celebrated continuously since the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. I also was unaware that the Pilgrims when they had first arrived on these shores were primarily responsible for their own dire situation.
When they first arrived in the New World, the Pilgrims adopted a communal way of governance – “To each according to his needs.” Sadly, even five centuries ago, there were some who did the work and others who benefited from the labor of their fellows. It was only when the “communal land” was divided up and allocated to each family that the young colony began to prosper – as people took responsibility for themselves. That is a lesson that does not fit well into the present political, statist mindset. Nor does the fact that it is to a loving God that we are addressing ourselves with our songs of thankfulness.
Since George Washington first proclaimed his statement of thanksgiving and President Lincoln designated a day of National Thanksgiving as an official holiday, the fact that it was to a Divine provenance that we as a people were to offer our thanks was a clear and constant theme. That was recognized in our school program and no one whether Christian or Jew, agnostic or atheist seemed to object. At least I never heard from those who might have.
My family also recognized this in our small Thanksgiving ritual dinner by inviting those who had no families of their own to share our meal and be a part of our family. Before Dad would begin carving the turkey, he would express his gratitude for the blessings he had received and would invite everyone around the table to do the same if they chose to do so. Only when the last person had spoken would we begin to eat.
In my own way I tried to carry on some variation of this tradition. For many years a number of us from the church in Chicago where I was a parishioner would wake up early and by four o’clock in the morning we would be working to prepare a complete traditional Thanksgiving meal that we would would serve to almost two hundred homeless people at a local shelter. When the last person had been served her or his plate, we would sit down with them and join them for this special meal.
But it was a sad realization that while we had fed these people for one day, we had done very little to change their lives. And it was difficult to hold on to a sense of Thanksgiving as we looked out over this ragtag, unwashed group of people, many of whom were recovering from their evening sedative of cheap whiskey or bad wine.
If there were any sense of hope it came from the few who turned to us and with sad but grateful eyes said, “Thank you,” as they left to return to their cardboard shelters – insufficient protection against the biting, blowing cold winds. But in the back of our minds we knew the fate that they had chosen, willingly or not, and knew that there was a warm apartment and a comfortable bed waiting for each of us.
It seems to me that over the years we have done everything within our power to secularize, anesthetize and sterilize Thanksgiving. It might better be described as a “Day of Carbohydrates and Gluttony, enhanced by a thorough immersion in football and concluded with a bout of mindless midnight spending at the mall.” Although I would be remiss not to note that in their attempt to suck the lucre out of the consumer’s purses and wallets, stores are opening even earlier than usual.
Given our abandonment of principle and our attempt to turn the sacred into the profane, it does not surprise me that a group of atheists, unmindful of the basis on which America was founded, have selected the Friday following Thanksgiving to launch a billboard campaign, boasting their credo, “Good without God.” I should suggest that for the sake of consistency, they should have spelled God with a lower case “g.”
The great thing about living in America is that everyone is entitled to his opinion – and I am delighted that this atheist contingent have the ability to offer theirs. I take no offense at their ministrations. But, in the spirit of American fairness, I do expect the same courtesy that they receive from me and others who have a religious mindset when it comes to expressing ourselves and our beliefs.
Now if that were to come to pass, that would truly be a reason for Thanksgiving.