I find it interesting that Thanksgiving is so uniquely American. Defining elements of distinctly American culture can be slippery, so whenever I come across something that America and only America has, I find it fascinating to consider why we have it and how, perhaps, celebrating us has influenced our culture over the years.
First of all, it should be said that in the strict sense, a festival pre-winter is not wholly unique. Harvest festivals abound elsewhere—the most obvious example is Mardi Gras, which is in origin a way of using up perishable foods before Lent and winter, and in practice could certainly be considered a way of celebrating an excess of bounty—not dissimilar from Thanksgiving.
And yet it is, in a crucial way.
Mardi Gras and other harvest festivals are human-centric, celebrations of celebrating. They are about indulging, to the ultimate extent. To put in in evangelical terms, they are celebrations of carnality, of indulging in worldly pleasures. No one is being thanked, it’s just a giant party prior to fasting out of religion/necessity.
Thanksgiving has, it must be admitted, a certain amount of worldly pleasures involved, though I don’t know that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. From a Christian standpoint, every good thing comes from God, and that includes pleasurable things and worldly things. The difference is that Thanksgiving is not celebrating those things for their own sake, but being grateful for what we have, along with less tangible and less worldly things.
There’s a comic I used to show my students. I thought it was called “Prisons”, but I can’t find it anywhere on Google which sucks because it was a GREAT graphic. It shows four people staring out of and in to windows, each clearly envious of what they see. The people are from such varied backgrounds and economic states that it might seem incredible that they are ALL envious of others. And yet that’s the point. Any place can be a prison—a person can be unhappy regardless of how much worldly excess they have. Which really, look around you–we’re in a time of unmatched prosperity and comfort, and everyone’s depressed.
And while there’s probably a lower limit on things, it’s possible to be happy in a wide variety of circumstances. The apostle Paul says “I have learned in whatever state I am in to be content.”
I mean, circumstances and happiness are related. I don’t want to trivialize the issue. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy comfort, and it’s easier to be content when you’re comfortable. This is true even for most Christians, I suspect. But Thanksgiving is very much about being thankful for what you have, not celebrating as much as humanly possible. The pilgrims who created the holiday didn’t have a lot, and when Lincoln made the holiday official, he did so in the middle of a devastating war. Circumstances and scarcity didn’t keep either people for celebrating what little they had.
Americans have a reputation for being eternally unsatisfied, of always pushing for more. Even the Pilgrims were looking to expand their community into a utopian city. Perhaps that’s why one of our biggest celebrations is just a day for taking a breath to be satisfied with what we have and where we are.
So what am I thankful for, with inflation rising, hospitals fuller than ever, and a recent bout in the emergency room from dislocating my shoulder?
I’m thankful that the country no longer seems to be going insane—Rittenhouse’s court case resulted in protests but nothing worse. (though already fear-mongers are wailing about a potential epidemic of vigilantes). I’m thankful that a vaccine is available to all who want it, and that treatments are on the horizon. And I’m thankful that the economy is reopened and schools again meeting.
Personally? I’m not happy in my current job. Yet when I take a step back, I do realize that it’s given me more time to write than ever, and it’s allowed me to learn disciplinary classroom management for kids with extreme behavioral problems—something I wanted to learn and desperately need practice with. I’ve had a very slow buildup of responsibility for handling such kids, which is probably the best way to learn it (for me).
I’m thankful that for two years now, I’ve had no seizures. That I’ve been able to live in the same place that whole time, and see my family regularly. I’ve lost weight, and had opportunity to exercise, learned how to cook. I’ve gone on dates with girls—one I dated for six months. I published a second book, and a book accepted several years ago for publication FINALLY started to move again.
That’s just the new stuff. I have a nice car. I have a full family, with more nieces and nephews than ever. A loving family. I have a job that more than provides for me, and friends who still talk to me. When I look around my apartment, it may not be a palace, but it does strike me how much I’ve gained over the years, from when I first moved out into college—even from when I first moved out to Texas. I really have a decent life.
I’m no super-christian. I’m discontent with a lot, and if it weren’t for the things I have, I’d probably be a lot more discontent. I’ve had a number of moments in the past few years where I’ve been very much un-thankful, with even as good as my life has been.
But that’s part of what Thanksgiving is about. Taking a breath to realize that there’s a lot to give thanks for.