(first published November 22, 2012)
Thanksgiving Day is an embarrassing holiday for the atheists. Whom shall one thank?
Goodhearted nonbelievers first turned the day from a formal national day of prayer to a rekindling of an earlier bliss betwixt Pilgrims and Indians. A little rewriting, and we were thanking the native-born Americans for their ecological wisdom that allowed us a full table. As usual, the guilt-ridden white folk missed the real story.
The Pilgrim parable was soon debunked by Indian activists who reminded the well-meaning storytellers that the only gifts white men gave Indians were smallpox blankets. The Green Indian refused his role and asked instead: “Who wants to celebrate that, white man?”
Luckily, an adaptable culture which sacralizes appetite had an answer. Getting back to the basics, there was a surge to elevate not “Whom We Thank” but “What We Eat.” Turkey Day was proclaimed!
No more messy cross-cultural narratives. Instead of asking that our sins be forgiven, a turkey was pardoned and the whole affair was consummated in a next-day orgy of shopping called Black Friday. That spin-off Feast Day is demanding a vigil service of its own, which may drive the whole embarrassment of public thanksgiving back in the memory hole where school prayer now abides.
Contrast Black Friday Eve with George Washington’s understanding of Thanksgiving Day in the first sentence of his 1789 Proclamation:
“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to recognize the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor…”Contrast Turkey Day with the content of his prayer:
“And also that we may unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions -- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually…”This is a day as a nation we are supposed to perform a religious duty -- to ask forgiveness and give thanks to a Divine Ruler who governs not only the lives of men, but the public communal forms of men: the nations. That is what Congress requested Washington to declare; and that is what this national day of prayer for forgiveness and thanksgiving is still meant to be. Thanks be to God.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out Andrew Lynch's essay.