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Against Secular Thanksgiving

Do we give thanks at all? Not really.

President Nixon Grimacing at Thanksgiving Turkey
President Nixon Grimacing at Thanksgiving Turkey (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

This week, Americans will be on holiday for a long weekend. Thanksgiving will be an occasion for gathering with friends and family, eating an extraordinary amount of food, drinking while watching football, and trying to avoid conversations about Kyle Rittenhouse, Antifa, the midterm elections, gender “reassignment surgery,” Biden’s cognitive decline, Fetterman’s cognitive impairment, Paul Pelosi’s story, January 6, critical race theory, vaccination status, the history of relations between American settlers and indigenous peoples, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Hunter Biden’s laptop, the media’s burial of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the price of the holiday meal, groomers, pronouns, Kanye West, cryptocurrency, and whatever a “supply chain” is.

Some will call it an early evening on Thursday because the true holiday dawns in the morning, on “Black Friday,” when the nation’s gluttony is redirected from cuisine to the conspicuous purchase of electronics and other Chinese-manufactured garbage that will be unceremoniously unwrapped on the morning of our next secularized, ritualistic celebration of material consumption in late December.

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Sure, there might be some spirituality left in the observance of Thanksgiving in some homes. Someone might say a brief grace before the meal, which will raise the level of discomfort by highlighting the divide between the portion of the family that still holds religious beliefs and the segment that has traded faith in God for the worship of the new deities: reason, secularism, empiricism, tolerance, and the Sanctity of Our Democracy. Maybe some aging aunt will force everyone to go through the antiquated process of naming “what we’re thankful for” this year. The kids will roll their eyes, but everyone will finally go through the motions: the quick sale of the house, an acceptance to grad school, a new job, PlayStation 5, our family.

If this sounds cynical, that’s because it is. The older I get the more I realize the great extent to which liberal secular society has hollowed out all the meaning from the annual celebrations that, in a healthy culture, served as a collective re-dedication to the shared values that formed the basis of who we were as a people: faith, family, freedom, etc. But as leftism has displaced the Christian faith that once defined the American character, we have slowly grown embarrassed of our holidays.

Columbus Day is well on its way to fully becoming “Indigenous People’s Day”—one more opportunity for Americans to flagellate themselves for the brutality that attended the founding of our nation. The Fourth of July hangs on, but it is on thin ice: the woke read on Independence Day is that it is a jingoistic celebration of toxic white masculinity, which formed the heart of the American Revolution and remains the driving force for American imperialism and neo-colonialism today. For some, Thanksgiving has become a memorialization of our shame, as the Thanksgiving story only brings to mind the near-annihilation of the Indians, who were sacrificed for Manifest Destiny and the acquisitive motives that fueled it.

Sadly, the moment when Aunt Mary asks everyone to think of what they’re thankful for isn’t a brief return to the true spirit of Thanksgiving: in fact, it is the mark of the triumph of secular liberalism in remaking the holiday. The holiday isn’t called “Thanksthinking.” The name of the celebration is Thanksgiving. This implies that the focus of the day is a particular action: a giving. A giving of what though? Our thanks. But to whom? This question hints at what has been erased from the holiday.

Simply thinking and naming the things for which one is thankful isn’t a giving of thanks. First of all, the materialist overtones of this task are unmistakable. The things that people name are always just that: things. Good things you got. Good things you earned. Good things that happened. This exercise ignores the forest for the trees. The pilgrims weren’t thankful for this pumpkin or that gentle winter. They were thankful for a general state of providence. They were thankful for their day-to-day blessings—the small blessings that always seemed to come despite their seemingly incessant hardship.

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And to whom did they give thanks for these things? To their benevolent, merciful God, who saw them safely across the sea, who gave them material for fires in the winter, and who moved the hearts of indigenous people to provide assistance to the newcomers when they were able to do so. Further, they didn’t thank God merely for the positive blessings they received. They gave thanks for the evils that did not befall them. They even thanked God for their hardships, a Christian habit discussed at length in the letters of Paul the Apostle.

To whom do we give thanks? Do we give thanks at all? Not really. We myopically reflect on the individual items and moments that gave us joy or sustenance. Few of us consider our general state of providence. We see the things we are thankful for as isolated reprieves from a life we too often view as difficult, tragic, or unfair. Most of us remain oblivious that life in America today—even for the least “privileged” among us—entails a bounty of blessings that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors. This obliviousness is a mark of ingratitude.

A spirit of gratitude—the pathos that is supposed to define Thanksgiving—isn’t just about the things that we have. Gratitude is a way of life: it means a habitual focus on the day-to-day plenitude of our lives. Amidst our material comfort, we take so much of what we have for granted, focusing instead on what we don’t have, what we want (set the alarm for Black Friday!), and what we want to happen. To the extent that we give thanks, we give it to the cosmos: we express our happiness that things just seemed to work out, as though our blessings are merely good luck or the rewards of our own virtuous behavior or hard work.

To cultivate gratitude is to recognize one’s blessings as gifts, often undeserved ones, from a God who loves us and continues to provide for us, in spite of our vanity, our ignorance, and our misdeeds. This Thanksgiving, rather than naming the things you and your family are grateful for, you might discuss what gratitude is, how one lives it, how one gives it, and to whom it ought to be given.

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