The “holiday wars” that first only attacked Christmas have gradually also taken over Thanksgiving. At first, the war was about time. In a reprise of the war over Sunday blue laws, commercial interests sought progressively to erode the time of Thanksgiving-qua-holiday to add to the time of Thanksgiving-as-consumerism.
Like Sundays, Thanksgiving is not a standalone, but part of a bigger temporal sequence in which “rest” was traditionally a part: the “weekend” for the former, “Thanksgiving weekend” for the latter. “Black Friday” (along with permutations like “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber-Monday” if not “Cyber-Week”) all gradually fastened like barnacles on to the four-day late-November holiday to try to put retailers in the black ahead of the Christmas spending orgy.
Some jurisdictions began to push back when “Black Friday” – probably the only other day besides New Year’s Eve that Americans stay out in public to observe midnight – began creeping into Thanksgiving evening itself. Pace the invisible hand of laissez-faire capitalism’s votaries, governments began to recognize that the preservation of Thanksgiving as a holiday, not a sales day, meant telling the market “no” to unregulated opening hours and compelling their employees to staff them.
This year the war is, as it has been in recent years, about history. Anno domini 2021 marks the 400th anniversary of the Thanksgiving service and meal that the Pilgrims shared in the autumn with local Indians. That celebration lasted three days (and, so far, revisionist historians have no evidence that the triduum was interrupted by sales at the Plymouth Mall).
What the revisionists have tried to sell the nation on is the 1619 Project, a concoction of Notre Dame educated Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues at The New York Times, which claims that 1619 – when the first slaves arrived in Virginia – was the true beginning of America, an assertion that has been disputed by many prominent historians.
But as progressives like to point out, it’s about “the narrative,” not “facts.” For them, America is not as a “city set on a hill” founded by people seeking religious freedom, but a country bearing the “original sin” of slavery that continues the “systemic” victimization of favored “disfavored” groups to this very day.
America’s traditional narrative highlights values antithetical to the “progressive” project. For one, it recognizes the indissoluble nexus between society (not “government” but something bigger, “society”) and religion. The Pilgrims did not lose over 40 percent of their initial numbers to pursue the “right to believe” but for “the right to practice,” openly, publicly, and unapologetically.
The first Thanksgiving recognized that society should corporately celebrate some things together besides enhanced commercial sales margins. The first Thanksgiving was a time of prayer it’s called “Thanksgiving” out of gratitude to the Creator, and, unlike its modern incarnation, its celebrants did not politely leave the recipient of their thanks unnamed.
The first Thanksgiving was also a time of celebration that included the Native Americans without whose aid even more Europeans would have died. Unlike modern group identity hypersensitivity, the invitation was extended without Boston bean-counting over “equity outcomes.” The traditional image of solidarity, at least at that moment, clashes wildly with the current fetish to tribalize groups and identify “intersectional” grievances instead of the larger community.
The contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski has argued that even in modern conditions the “God question” is unavoidable: we will believe in some God, be it the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or a deity of our own making. But there will be belief in a Supreme One around whom everything else in a society will be ordered. The amazing sleight-of-hand of our day has been how the religion of secularism (since it depends on axioms that must be taken on faith, not proof) manages to pretend it is a-religious.
Let me suggest that, while “English arrivals v. Native Americans,” “genocide,” and other issues surround Thanksgiving 2021, what really sticks in the revisionist craw is that America’s origins were connected to a public religious project. Eliminating that part of the American story is vital for progressives because, unless God is removed from the public square, free persons will always have another and higher allegiance as a check against our political Leviathan.
The effort to erase the religious history of Thanksgiving is hardly unique. It’s of the same fabric as efforts to discard Junipero Serra, marginalize Pierre-Jean de Smet, and erase the North American Martyrs from history.
That first Thanksgiving was also preceded by the first document of self-governance produced in British North America – the Mayflower Compact – which declared the religious purpose of this expedition: “for the Glory of God, the advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and country.”
We should not deny the moral stains in American history – especially the deep evils of slavery. But the 1619 Project is not simply about recalling those moral failings. It’s about reducing the American story solely to those moral failings, while minimizing – even deliberately ignoring – the Civil War we fought to bring slavery to an end, the successes of the civil rights movement, and our ongoing efforts against all forms of unjust discrimination.
Let us, then, celebrate this quadricentennial of Thanksgiving by reclaiming its essence: that we are a people “under God” and equal because created in his image and likeness, who, in acknowledging the Father who is the “giver of every good gift” (James 1:17) do not allow – our sins and failings notwithstanding – for any division between brothers.
*Image: The First Thanksgiving, 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, c. 1914 [private collection]. The painting, never meant to be an utterly accurate depiction of the great event, was recently used (2019) to illustrate a New York Times article, “The Vicious Reality Behind the Thanksgiving Myth.” Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, born in Philadelphia, created 78 paintings in a series titled, The Pageant of a Nation, of which this is one.
You may also enjoy:
St. John Henry Newman’s The Eucharist and Thanksgiving
Ronald Reagan’s The President’s 1987 Thanksgiving Proclamation