This annual holiday is as peculiar and unsettled as America itself, an utterly secular feast during which we celebrate an indistinct gratitude, expressing our thanks, if we are believers, to God, and if we are not believers, to Whomever or Whatever might receive them … as a castaway might toss a message-bearing bottle into an expressionless and delirious ocean.
The encroachments of historical irony have never seemed far from the celebration of Thanksgiving Day. Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday of November as a national feast in 1863, affixing his presidential signature to a proclamation written in purple prose by his secretary of state, William Seward. “The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” Seward sang.
“To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” As Seward was putting on the final editorial touches to his document, turkey vultures in Georgia were gratefully gobbling up the flesh of American teenagers lying dead under healthful skies and strewing the fruitful fields on both sides of Chickamauga Creek.
This year, grumpy consumers, pontificating TV journalists and excitable bloggers are castigating such erstwhile charitable companies as Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us for turning Thanksgiving into a sort of “Black Friday Eve,” by extending their business hours into Thursday night. These recent instances of corporate rapacity are entirely predictable, nor do they seriously threaten any liturgical feast or religious doctrine. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see how many people are outraged by this offense to the generally agreed-upon decorum of communal gratitude.
It is no trivial thing, this public consensus on which the celebration of Thanksgiving is based. Just as superstition can sometimes give rise true faith, sentimentality can sometimes give rise to genuine conviction. Catholics are regularly reminded of this when we go to Mass. “Our desire to thank You is itself Your gift,” we pray.
“Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to Your greatness, but makes us grow in Your grace.” At Thanksgiving, we set aside a whole day to give thanks together, no matter how inarticulately, no matter how self-indulgently, no matter how plagued by family foibles and quarrels, no matter how absurdly distracted by football and parades. When we do all these things, we are, in fact, receiving a gift, no matter how ungrateful we are. That alone is reason enough to give thanks.
Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public relations. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.