Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving

The beauty of Thanksgiving is its simplicity.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “Freedom From Want”
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “Freedom From Want” (photo: Office for Emergency Management; Office of War Information; Domestic Operations Branch; Bureau of Special Services)

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others. —Cicero

I would mention that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. —G. K. Chesterton

There are some things that take some getting used to for an Englishman living in the United States. It is odd, for instance, that Good Friday is not a public holiday in this country. In England, for all its hedonistic secularism, the day of Our Lord’s Crucifixion is still a day of rest, as is Easter Monday, the day that follows the Feast of the Resurrection. This annual four-day holiday makes Easter special, even for those who have forgotten that these are holidays because they are Holy Days. Similarly, it is odd that many Americans seem to think that Christmas is over at midnight on Dec. 25. Although I have now lived here for 14 years, I can’t help thinking it peculiar when I see Christmas trees being discarded on the day after Our Lord’s nativity. Whatever happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas?

In the Olde Countrie, for all its amnesia about its glorious Christian past, there is still a sense that Christmas is a season and not just a day. Admittedly the Twelve Days have shriveled to only eight, the Christmas season lasting from Christmas Day until New Year’s Day, both of which are public holidays. Many businesses close from Christmas Eve until Jan. 2 and it is very common for people to take the whole period or “season” off from work. When I was growing up it was still customary for the Christmas tree and Christmas decorations to remain in place until all Twelve Days were over.

And then there’s the Fourth of July. What is an Englishman, living in the United States, to make of all the pyrotechnics and razzmatazz surrounding America’s revolutionary celebrations? For one who grew up cheering the red, white and blue of Britain’s flag, it’s a little psychologically difficult to switch one’s allegiance to the red, white and blue of Old Glory. In point of fact, I switched my allegiance many years ago from the red, white and blue of the British flag to the simple red and white of the cross of St. George, discarded the imperialism of Great Britain for the beautiful simplicity of Little England. But that’s another matter that is best left for another time.

For all of my psychological distance from it, the Fourth of July is a far healthier celebration than the “fireworks night” or “bonfire night” that is celebrated in my own country each year. On Nov. 5, Englishmen celebrate the fact that a Catholic, Guy Fawkes, was burned alive on that date in 1605. They do so by placing an effigy of Guy Fawkes on the bonfire and by setting off fireworks as they watch him burn. Considering that the Motherland instigated this macabre “celebration,” it is easier to sympathize with those who celebrate America’s independence from her clutches!

In contrast to my misgivings about the American celebration of Easter and Christmas, and my relative indifference to the Fourth of July, I have nothing but effusive enthusiasm for the wonderful feast of Thanksgiving. Having never experienced this festivity until my arrival on this side of the Pond, I can say, without the least hesitation, that it has a very special place in my heart. Notwithstanding Chesterton’s quip that England should have its own Thanksgiving to give thanks for the fact that the Puritans left, I will say that in this, at least, the Puritans have bestowed a great blessing on us all.

There are many reasons for being grateful for Thanksgiving but the most important is that it is all about giving thanks. Originally, of course, it was all about giving thanks to God; now, in our secular fundamentalist culture, it might be more about giving thanks to our neighbors and friends, or about being thankful for the material blessings that we have received, irrespective of where those blessings ultimately have their source.

The beauty of Thanksgiving is its simplicity. Whereas Christmas (Christ-Mass) was first assailed by those who wanted to separate Christ from the Mass and was then assailed by those who wanted to separate Christmas from Christ, it is simply not possible to separate Thanksgiving from the giving of thanks. Even if we try to avoid giving thanks to God in our giving of thanks for the blessings in our life, He is inescapably present in the very act of thanksgiving itself. This is so because the gift of gratitude is inseparable from the gift of grace, the former being the fruit of the latter. It is no coincidence that the very words, “gratitude” and “grace,” have the same etymological roots in the Latin gratus from whence we get grazie in Italian and gracias in Spanish, meaning “thanks,” but also grace, meaning God’s gift or favor. The paradox is that our giving of thanks is itself a gift of gratitude given by God. It is for this reason, above all other lesser reasons, that we should always be giving thanks for Thanksgiving! Deo gratias!   

This article originally appeared in the Imaginative Conservative and is republished with permission. It first appeared Nov. 22, 2018, at the Register.