- We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.
- Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!
- We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be;
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
- (Traditional Thanksgiving Hymn)
Tomorrow, I will do what, prior to the pandemic, was one of the most common and predictable American behaviors - traveling to spend Thanksgiving with family. As my generation all learned as kids from Perry Como, There's No Place like Home for the Holidays. "Home" here refers less to a particular place than to particular people, often family or some constellation of people who have become a substitute for family.
"Home" in this analogous sense is precisely where I (and many others) have been unable to be this past year. It is now two years since Thanksgiving 2019, since I last made this trip. Since then, we will be at least one family member fewer at the turkey table this year. Since then, so much else has happened to each of us individually and all of us together, as we have struggled through this painful pandemic experience, which has not only been a source of suffering in its own terms, but has symbolically served as surrogate for so much else that troubles our country and our world and has shown how in need of healing we now are.
A civic holiday is not a panacea. It cannot correct the manifold problems and challenges we face as a society. But a civic holiday so heavily laden with aspirational national symbolism as Thanksgiving can be an apt symbolic occasion prompting reflection and renewal.
More than any other civic holiday, Thanksgiving follows the ancient, apparently universal human model of a ritual meal. All animals need to eat. As human animals we necessarily eat to live. Indeed (as in the resurrection appearance of Jesus in Luke 24:41-42) our ability to eat also shows we are really alive. And, because we are social and political animals, we need to eat together. Our meals, whether alone or with others, reflect our dependence on the fruits of God's creation and ritualize our dependence on the world from which we are inseparable. Our shared meals highlight our dependence on one another and ritualize our common aspiration for what the ancients understood as the good life. Our festive Thanksgiving holiday dinner is all of that, contextualized by our shared history of family (those immediately gathered at the turkey table and our memories of those who gathered at that table with us in the past) and a particular national community, whose origins and aspirations are mythologized and ritualized in this annual observance, which links us with our fellow citizens across space and time. A nation is found, first of all, in its shared history. With its historically prescribed festive menu, Thanksgiving connects our national past with our immediate present of families and friends.
The first national Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. was observed on November 26, 1789, having been proclaimed by President George Washington "as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God." Abraham Lincoln reintroduced Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday in 1863 (during the Civil War), and Congress finally assigned the holiday its current date (the fourth Thursday in November) in 1941.
But the holiday has, from its inception, been most associated in American history and national mythology with the 17th-century colonial experience. In his last Thanksgiving proclamation in 1963, President John F. Kennedy recalled the predominant New England tradition (along with that of alternative colonial claimants): "Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God."
Obviously, we cannot recreate exactly what was in the minds of the "Pilgrims" on the occasion of that first Thanksgiving dinner. But we can reasonably infer that they remembered the sacrificial covenant meal celebrated by Moses and the Israelites when they became a nation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. To them, as at Mount Sinai, God was present there with his people, as they constituting themselves as a new people to experience their new national life in their new land. At the same time, the presence of others at the Pilgrims' feast invites us who now remember that feast to recall the ancient ideal of friendship, which as Aristotle asserted consists in community and sharing.
These ideals are intrinsic to the symbolism of this celebration, as is Jonathan Winthrop's familiar invocation in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” of the New Testament image of a city upon a hill - invoked not (as it has since sometimes been invoked) in a spirit of self-congratulation but as a challenge to be an authentic moral community:
For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
Photo: "Thanksgiving Dinner," Norman Rockwell's famous illustration of Freedom From Want, part of Rockwell's Four Freedoms series, based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" State of the Union Address to Congress, January 6, 1941.
To hear Perry Como's rendition of There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays, go to: