Thanksgiving is Under Assault in Many Different Ways

The woke are like the Puritans. Both could benefit from a day of thanksgiving and penance.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, “The First Thanksgiving,” c. 1915
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, “The First Thanksgiving,” c. 1915 )

Thanksgiving is a quintessential American holiday. Most people around the world identify it with Americans. (Apologies to my Canadian friends, but Martin Frobisher’s 1578 banquet in the eastern Arctic of “salt beef, biscuits, and mushy peas” just didn’t catch on). 

That’s not to say Thanksgiving sprang from nowhere. European Christians — Catholics and Protestants — had festivals of Thanksgiving. The word “Eucharist” itself – the “source and summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium, no. 11) — means “thanksgiving.” Even Frobisher’s chaplain celebrated a Protestant “Eucharist” before the crew sat down to those delectable peas.

The religious roots of the American people therefore knew of thanksgiving, and American history — even in the Protestant British colonies — records both community days of thanksgiving and penance(“humiliation”).

And while our Protestant brethren might take theological exception, the Catholic axiom that “grace builds on nature” is in play here, too. Cultures both Christian and non-Christian (including Native American) traditionally observed some kind of autumn “thanksgiving” ritual in gratitude for the harvest because, when you live in a world not outfitted with Aldi, 7-Eleven, Safeway, or Amazon Grocery, a bountiful cornucopia is the difference between living and dying during the coming winter. That religious feasts have been built on anthropological substructures is neither bad nor dishonest. Offering a further religious interpretation of what humans are already disposed towards is not coopting the roots as much as bringing them to full flower.

I mention all this because Thanksgiving as a holiday is now very much under elite cultural assault in several different ways. 

Its religious origins are blurred. Although the Pilgrims saw themselves, according to the Mayflower Compact (400 years old on Nov. 21), as engaged in settlement “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and country,” there is sometimes a subtle shift in the portrayal of their 1621 feast with the Wampanoag, from a religious event to a social celebration highlighting intercommunal solidarity. Catholics, prone to “both/and” approaches, would ask why it has to be “either/or.” 

Well, it’s “either/or” to assuage the mindset that thinks a religiously-based American civil holiday is Constitutionally in bad faith, so we need to create a “naked public Thanksgiving” (to adapt Neuhaus’ phrase). Consider how often public discussions of Thanksgiving focus more on what we should be thankful for rather than to whom.

Downplaying or hiding the religious significance of Thanksgiving also seems to go along with the effort to reduce the evangelization of the Americas to another tawdry result of history. Pardon me if I detect a common anti-religious thread that obscures the Pilgrims’ religious celebration, takes down statues of Serra and DeSmet, and turns the North American Martyrs into witting or unwitting dupes of French colonialism while at the same time seeming to nurture some idyllic and romantic vision of Native American lives and spirituality that has more in common with Rousseau’s “noble savage” mythology than historical fact. 

Celebrating intercommunal and interpersonal solidarity is also currently déclassé to cultural elites fixated on stoking racial, ethnic, and/or political division and consciousness. Although American Indians also had harvest festivals and the Wampanoag might have found at least a temporarily convenient alliance with the Pilgrims, we’re told (by the New York Times) that Thanksgiving is really “Takes-giving” because colonial settlement dispossessed Native Americans. “’The true Indigenous wisdom that is behind the philosophy of Thanksgiving [is] about not taking, but about giving back.’”

Has history reshaped and magnified the significance of what happened on a fall afternoon in 1621 Massachusetts? Yes. But history is also part of history and Thanksgiving also points to an effort at inclusion. Did “inclusion” mean for 17th-century Radical Reformation Englishmen what it does for 21st-century secular woke Americans? No — but neither have we a right to impose our historical categories on them, as if a society that believes privately administered prenatal capital punishment is a “right” should make its morality all of humanity’s measure.

Have injustices been done to American Indians over the course of the centuries? Yes. But an unending quest to “repair” the sins of the past does not fully lead to “justice” in the present for the simple reason that humans lack the capacity to rewrite history. 

A priest once tried to cure his penitent of her constant recidivism towards gossip by taking her out into the parish parking lot that windy Saturday afternoon, cutting open a feather pillow, and letting the gusts carry the down around. “For your penance, gather up every last feather.” She realized some things have to be left to God (and that she should change her ways). The same is true of history. When man plays God by thinking he can “reform” the past, he is more likely to create new injustice.

Wrong should be addressed, but not in a way that sets people or groups in ongoing conflict. That is why Thanksgiving remains valuable as a sign — perhaps a future sign, but a sign — of solidarity between groups.

It is also a sign of solidarity between people. In the recent past, predating President Trump’s election but certainly gaining momentum after it, our cultural elites have also wrung their hands about their dilemma of joining with and talking to family members at the Thanksgiving table who voted or think “wrongly.” In the last years of the Obama administration, there were even guides to help you to “talk” to your “crazy uncle” about the merits of Obamacare or “reproductive freedom.” With Trump’s election, the shift came to some kind of gnostic idea that one was doing some great favor by being soiled sitting at a common table.

The focus of Thanksgiving as an opportunity for gratitude about the blessings in our lives — objectively and as we see them — is what this day is about. In that task, we are all debtors. Amidst all our rhetoric about “coming together” and “unity,” perhaps its most practical expression might be coming together in thanksgiving with those whom we love, like … or maybe not so much.

In that sense, woke and cancel culture has something in common with Reformed Massachusetts. The Puritans (the folks who came better prepared and with more governmental encouragement after the Pilgrims) held an ecclesiology (theology of church) vastly different from Catholicism. Catholics see the Church in this world as the “Church Militant,” a community striving “in fear and trembling” to work out its salvation by faith and good works. Puritans saw the church as a community of the covenanted elect. Their problem was not “working” out their salvation (since they threw out good works) but in finding evidence that they were among the predestined few. Their survival, their prospering, their expansion and acquisition of land were all proofs of their election: Deus vult! The paradox is that the self-conceptions of the Puritans and the woke are, in fact, not that far removed from each other. Both are guilt-stricken elites convinced of their righteousness. The woke are simply Puritans without necessarily the deity. Both could benefit from a day of Thanksgiving (and humiliation).

Finally, while the primary and — in my view, more dangerous — assault on Thanksgiving is ideological, that’s not to say that its erosion does not also have more pedestrian motives. A few years back, a number of local jurisdictions found it necessary to impose legal prohibitions against the further commercialization of Thanksgiving when primarily national chains tried to push “Black Friday” into Thursday evening and compel store staff to work. In that effort, those intent on changing the meaning and significance of Thanksgiving became strange bedfellows with laissez-faire libertarian capitalists who claimed they were just expanding individuals’ “right to work.” As a classic example of the ability to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the further commercialization of Thanksgiving was blocked not by “the invisible hand of the market” but the very visible hand of the law, protecting peoples’ right (and obligation) to give thanks, be with family, and share a common cultural moment that makes those people a people. In support of those goals, Catholics might look at what businesses nevertheless open on Thanksgiving evening … and give them wide berth in the subsequent “holiday” season.