According to revisionist scholars (and they may very well be correct in this) the story of the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving was adopted as the official one because of deep prejudice against Catholicism triggered by the wave of Catholic immigrants after the Civil War. Unitarians, by the way, were deeply implicated in this prejudice with much writing and preaching, and Millard Fillmore being named the candidate of the Know-nothing party, a party established with the platform of severely limiting immigration. Actually, and this is an irrelevant aside, it is a perfect example of good coming from evil as our strongest protections of the separation of church and state in state constitutions, including that of Florida, were engendered by that prejudice.
Despite its dubious origins, and perhaps this is another example of good coming from evil means, there is much to be celebrated in the official myth, not least the traditional menu. Thanksgiving is a holiday that all can celebrate, either as a secular event of family solidarity and excellent eating, or as a deeply religious holiday that all religions can celebrate. That is why it is so often the occasion for interfaith services. It can be celebrated whether one is Catholic or Protestant, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or whichever. The celebration of gratitude for our many blessings is universal.
One of the reasons I have always liked Thanksgiving is that even though the following day is the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, called Black Friday because that is the day that retail stores hope to finally get their account books out of the red (is that the only example of a popular metaphor for black that is positive?) no one has ever managed fully to commercialize Thanksgiving itself. Even Hallmark, although it has many cards for sale has never managed to make the exchange of Thanksgiving cards another burden of the holidays. Actually, I did get an e-card from my daughter a couple of years ago. It was an animated turkey, looking and moving suspiciously like Gloria Gaynor, singing a Thanksgiving turkey’s version of “I Will Survive”. However, it was more in the nature of a forwarded joke than a holiday greeting. She has never done such a thing again.
Out of curiosity I looked up Thanksgiving in Wikipedia and it said that although it was established as a religious holiday, for most people it was entirely secular. I don’t think this is really the case. Although there may not be any rituals practiced, I think that most people remember that it is more than just a family feast. We think about those things for which we are thankful. We usually think rather self-centeredly as when we are thankful for those things that we have that others may not like health, sufficient food, security and other like items that are more a matter of luck than grace, but we do practice gratitude which is a universal religious emotion. The question I’d like to look at, though, is not only for what we are grateful, but toward whom or what we feel this gratitude. Surely such an emotion should have an object.
For those who believe in a creative and sustaining will in the universe, however amorphous it may be, the answer is easy. You are thankful to it whether you call it God or some other name. However, for non-theists, as many of us are, it is a more complex question. If this beautiful, nurturing world on which we live, if this amazing universe itself, is merely the product of natural processes, what is the occasion for gratitude?
Of late the word interdependence has become highly fashionable. It is the understanding that everything in the world is in relationship with everything else, that anything happening to one part of it affects everything else. It is also, I think, a little sop to our egos, keeping us from having to think about our utter dependence on this planet and the life upon it and upon one another. After all, the idea of interdependence lets us imagine that we are important, too. In fact, though, although everything is in relationship and affects everything else, and although there would certainly be significant changes in the distribution of species, as one example, should the human race disappear, the necessity of our existence in the material scheme of things is certainly debatable. It is humbling to realize how dependent we are on things that we did not, could not provide for ourselves alone. We live in cities we did not build, drink from wells we did not dig, live in houses filled with things we did not make, eat food we neither sowed nor reaped. That’s from Deuteronomy. But there’s more. We live on a planet whose existence is dependent on the laws of gravity and the sun that it encircles, and the life of which is dependent on that sun’s radiance and the earth and air and water that make up its body. We are entirely dependent on the laws of this complex universe, on the sun, on the earth and the life upon it, and on one another. We can be grateful to each of those things, or we can just be grateful.
I said before that I can think of no material necessity for our existence except for those species that we have developed and nurtured or for which we otherwise provide sustenance, like coyotes, but perhaps there is a spiritual necessity that is shown partly in our capacity for gratefulness. This may be how we are justified — by our awareness of the good and the beautiful and our gratitude for them.
Who can make an accounting of gratitude? You know when you are offering official thanks for those who have helped with this or that activity or event, you are nearly always sure that you have left someone out — very likely the most important someone, and you’ll never live down the shame of it. That’s how I feel when I try to list all the things for which we should be grateful. There are those one forgets, omits, maybe doesn’t even know about, processes and things beyond our perception without which our lives would be poorer or might not even exist.
Let me start with the big things. I am thankful for this universe and for its laws that keep the whirling galaxies in motion and provides us mysteries of wonder when we try to imagine its size and its order. I am thankful for the sun whose radiance gives us light and warmth and life. I am thankful for the earth on which we live which sustains us and holds us. I am thankful for life itself, my own and that of others, that provides us the opportunity for rejoicing and for love.
I am thankful for the people who gave me life and who now sustain it, who feed me, teach me, provide for my necessities and even listen to me. I am thankful for love, the love that I receive and even more for the love that I can give.
Perhaps I am most thankful for the perception of beauty. It is perhaps the greatest gift to see the stars at night not merely as blazing infernos held in their places in the universe by the laws of gravity but as patterns of loveliness, to see the ocean and the earth and so much that is on it not merely as our sustenance but as beauty itself. One of the places that I most glory in the beauty of the ocean, perhaps because it is a defined and mentally manageable area is
Or perhaps what I am most thankful for is the power and complexity of the human spirit. It is easy, and I think we mostly do this, to focus on the evil that we so often are guilty of, evil that is nearly always based on our fears which are natural consequences of our instinctive drive to survive. There is no question that we do great harm to the earth that is our home, to the creatures on it and to one another. We are greedy and destructive and oppressive. On the other hand in the toll of years we haven’t been around very long and we only had the rudiments of civilization as little as 10,000 years ago. What we have achieved in that mere eyeblink in the age of the earth is almost incredible — different both in kind and quality from that of the other animals who are our cousins. We have built marvelous structures both of stone and of thought. We have learned to provide an abundance of food for everyone on the earth, could we only learn how to distribute it fairly. We have defied gravity and flown through the air and walked on the moon. We can stay warm in winter and cool in summer and go from one to the other in a matter of hours. We have created wondrously lovely works of art — painting, sculpture, music and poetry — and learned the inmost structure of the atom. We can communicate almost instantaneously with any part of the world, and so quickly can we travel from place to place that it is hard to remember how large it is compared to us.