Every fourth Thursday in November, We the People gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. Of course, there are in this New Colossus some for whom the day is an affront: a few of “your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse” from wherever – but not like earlier immigrants. Now some are huddled off in the proverbial corner: folks for whom liberty is just a Statue. For multiculturalists it must be a sour day, because Thanksgiving is all about e pluribus unum; about one free people unified despite their grievances.
Even the people who would strike “under God” from the Pledge or remove “in God we trust” from our currency pretty much leave Turkey Day alone, because it’s our great secular holiday.
To be sure, prayers are often a big part of the Big Meal. My Presbyterian grandfather’s unvarying prayer was, “For that which we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful,” to which my thoroughly irreligious parents would give a hearty “Amen!”
The greatest NFL Thanksgiving Day game I ever watched was the Lions against the previously unbeaten Packers in 1962. The Lion’s original Fearsome Foursome (Alex Karras, Roger Brown, Sam Williams, and Darris McCord) swarmed all over Bart Starr (like ducks on a June bug, as Captain Butler would say), sacking the Packers’ QB eleven times, six by Brown alone.
Grandma Earnhart had trouble getting the men to the table that day!
The prayer Grandpa said wasn’t burdensome to anybody. Even for my professor father, there was an appeal in giving thanks to something or someone outside ourselves. Dad had no great concern for what or who that might be (tradition, probably), but he thought it wholly insufficient that we would revel in our own private good fortune; to believe that there wasn’t at a minimum an shared inheritance to celebrate.
And then came that next Thanksgiving, fifty years ago today, which was our most somber (President Kennedy having been gunned down the Friday before). My grandfather said grace as usual, but then the Professor raised his goblet of ice water and proposed a toast:
“To liberty,” he said.
And that was the right note. Had I not been a button-downed teenager, I might have begun singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which we’d sung often in elementary school, although memorizing only the first verse.
My country, ‘tis of thee,Sweet land of liberty,Of thee I sing;Land where my fathers died,Land of the pilgrims’ pride,From ev’ry mountainsideLet freedom ring!
Our fathers’ God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.
Did you know the song has thirteen verses? Five are by Samuel Francis Smith; the rest added later by Henry van Dyke. Smith set his lyrics to “God Save the Queen” in 1831 when he was a twenty-three-year-old Protestant seminarian. He called the song “America.” It contains much fulsome praise of our republic (“I love thy rocks and rills/Thy woods and templed hills”), and it plainly states that God is the “Author of liberty,” and the whole song is not so much pious as patriotic.
And look you here: sweet liberty is principally what we should celebrate today. Yes, I know there were Pilgrim prayers in the 1620s, long before there was a Declaration or a Constitution, and even earlier Catholic thanksgivings at Masses and feasts celebrated by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. But Thanksgiving didn’t really loom large in the American imagination until after Mr. Lincoln laid the groundwork for a truly national holiday with his official Thanksgiving proclamation of 1863, a pretty good year for proclamations about freedom.
Secretary of State William Seward wrote the proclamation and very ably caught the president’s style and substance. There are paeans to “fruitful fields and healthful skies” and invocations of Almighty God. But when you get down to it, it’s really about “rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and . . . with large increase of freedom.”
I’m not here making the case that Thanksgiving is a wholly secular holiday. I could make the case that it has been degraded substantially by multiculturalism, mass media, and commercialism, but let’s put all that to the side.
What I am arguing is that Thanksgiving is not a holy day. Thanking God for every blessed moment of our lives is simply a matter of common sense, and to do it together in a spirit of national unity and familial love is sublime, but Thanksgiving doesn’t “belong” to religion.
It belongs to us as Americans, as we are, whoever we are: Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. In every single American home today, God is the author of the feast, but not all agree about that, and some voices will be raised angrily, one at another, about just that. But most will be thankful, truly so, to be American, to share with all our brothers and sisters the blessings of liberty.
Because liberty is at the heart of humanity. No exceptions. God made every person in His image: free. That this first freedom should lead us to love God, no Catholic (nor any other religious person) will doubt. We cannot love Him unless we are at liberty to do so, and so also free to reject Him. America is unique because we have always taken so seriously our right to pursue happiness, which happiness may only, truly be found in God.
Let no one then oppress us; let no one take from us our liberty to love, pray, laugh, argue, worship, eat, drink, and to pick gridiron winners: Lions, Raiders, Steelers.