Carol: Thanksgiving — The Most Uniquely American Holiday of All
If Christmas is the king of America’s holiday calendar, Thanksgiving sometimes seems like its forgotten stepchild.
As a child in the Midwest of the 1970’s, my older brother always protested when Christmas decorations were up before Thanksgiving. Now, of course, such outrage seems like a quaint relic of a bygone age. As soon as Halloween’s jack-o-lanterns are put back into storage, they are replaced with sleighs, trees, and the other secular symbols of what has increasingly become known as the “holiday season.”
It is, perhaps, ironic that America’s only non-sectarian religious holiday is also its least commercialized. There are no gifts like at Christmas or Hanukkah, no chocolate and flowers like Easter – nor are there the fireworks, barbeque and car sales of Independence Day or the surging alcohol sales of Halloween. And where Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Easter celebrates the resurrection of the crucified Christ, Thanksgiving isn’t actually about jubilation. It’s really the only major holiday that, as its name indicates, is dedicated to simple thanksgiving – a quieter, but no less heartfelt, emotion.
Even the music of Thanksgiving is as unique as it is beautiful. Alone among America’s holidays, the songs devoted to it are almost exclusively religious – there is no counterpart to “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” “The Dreidel Song” or “Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail.” And the faith referenced in Thanksgiving hymns is robust and old-fashioned, reflecting a world view remarkably at odds with the content-free, feel-good “spirituality” being peddled to believers today.
Take “We Gather Together” – perhaps the most famous Thanksgiving hymn ever. It references a Lord that “chastens,” even as it both recognizes God as the ultimate defender against “wicked oppressing” and prays for the Lord’s congregation to “escape tribulation.” Another well-known and beautiful Thanksgiving hymn, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” likewise acknowledges God’s judgment along with His mercy, looking to a day when He will “Giv[e] angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast; But the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore,” as it implores Him to “gather all Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin.”
Yet the references to sin, trials and sorrow – harkening back to a time when Americans acknowledged the existence of tribulation as an inevitable part of life — darken Thanksgiving’s music not at all. Rather, they render the recognition of God’s supreme power, and the expression of gratitude for mercy and deliverance, even more solemn, beautiful and heartfelt.
Beginning with George Washington, many American presidents issued one-time Thanksgiving Day proclamations. But it was Abraham Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday in perpetuity, noting that, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.” And in its willingness to set aside a day — not for a Canadian-style “harvest festival” — but for a real, religious Thanksgiving, lies the root of America’s greatness.
Thanksgiving is the only secular holiday inescapably infused with religious meaning. For a nation founded with a secular government undeniably rooted in religious faith, that truth in itself serves to render Thanksgiving the most uniquely American holiday of all.