Today, Thanksgiving can be described for many people in two words: Food and football. I enjoy a good meal and a leisurely afternoon as much as anybody, but I also often experience a nagging discomfort this time of year; an itching sensation that something doesn’t feel right. Thanksgiving, for all its made-for-Pinterest kitschy-ness and Facebook 30-days-of-gratitude posts, is kind of an obvious, redundant holiday. Setting aside a day for an American to give thanks is like a National Football League athlete appreciating the football. Yet somehow, there’s an increasing disconnect.
Sure, we try to remember the meaning of Thanksgiving; it wasn’t that long ago and there’s plenty of literature for all ages on the subject. Every November, classrooms fill with turkey crafts, Pilgrim hats, and giving trees that have sprouted leaves describing things for which things kids are thankful. (Just last week on the feathers of her construction paper turkey, my five-year-old scrawled she was thankful for “bed,” “sun,” and her “house.” Ditto, kid.) These efforts are worthwhile. But really, have you stopped to think about why and for what Americans should stop and give thanks? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not football. It’s not your house. It’s not even that yummy turkey.
Let’s Reprise the Thanksgiving Story
Two groups of people came to America: Separatists who desperately wanted to break free from the Church of England and employees from the London Company, which the Separatists called “strangers.” Later, those who survived essentially intermingled, and we dubbed them the Pilgrims. These men, women, and children barfed and shivered their way across the Atlantic for 60 days. Those who survived landed on the shores of Cape Cod, just weeks away from winter, with no shelter but their ship, and no food but what they’d brought (and could kill).
Let that sink in a moment: A bunch of ardent, devout English folk risked comfort, reputation, financial well-being, and their lives to live what they believe about God. There is no way to twist this story. There is no alternate beginning or ending. I’m not saying America is a Christian country, or it’s the Promised Land, or God’s favorite, or any other twisted bit of religious mumbo jumbo. It’s just clear from historical documents that this country’s humble beginnings were about religious freedom. Period.
To top it off, when the Pilgrims arrived, they lived on the Mayflower for their first winter, using it as a base from which they attempted to build shelters and hunt for food. (I don’t even like to walk to the mailbox during the winter—and I’m from Minnesota. So major kudos, hearty Pilgrims.) While fighting off pneumonia, the Pilgrims began to build an entire new village. Come early spring, half of the Pilgrims had died in their quest to find a place to worship God freely.
Pilgrims encountered Native Americans and, with the help of an English-speaking Patuxet (we know him as Squanto), found a way to plant food, hunt more efficiently, and, essentially, survive. When the Mayflower finally sailed back to England, not one Pilgrim returned with it. The following autumn brought a more settled village life and a bountiful harvest. They planned to celebrate this, and the aid the Indians had given them, with a harvest festival—a Thanksgiving.
From Pilgrims to the Macy’s Parade
If you’re picturing the feast, like I am in my mind—complete with Indians, Pilgrims, kids running around, and a cornucopia of cod, sea bass, lobsters, mussels, pumpkin pudding, grapes, crab apples, geese, and wild turkeys—snap it with your iPhone for a moment, and let’s travel back to the future and use that panoramic feature to pull away from America and look at the rest of the world.
Eighty percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day, and half of the world’s citizens live on less than $2.50 a day. The average Thanksgiving meal at home costs anywhere from $50 to $100 (unless you buy the organic, kosher turkey like the woman in front of my husband at the grocery store last year; then your meal will cost considerably more). No, I’m not going to make you feel guilty for enjoying a feast while others around the world are scrounging for rice and beans. But knowledge armed with compassion offers a worthwhile perspective and might even inspire action.
Some people’s struggle for survival isn’t all that different from the meager way the Pilgrims lived the first year they were here. Religious freedom and humble friendship, combined with the vast landscape of a land undiscovered to most people groups, launched a most unique way of life for us in 2014. Yet there’s something almost embarrassingly disingenuous for one of the wealthiest countries in the world to set aside one day out of the year for thanksgiving. The United States is home to 14.2 million millionaires, more than any other country. Do we really need a national holiday imploring us to be grateful? Shouldn’t our gratitude be overflowing from our lips? Yet the Internet, office water coolers, school hallways, church sanctuaries, and living room couches burst with people, myself included, who have something to complain about, however arbitrary or significant. Gratitude should be a way of life, yet so often it’s only a day on the calendar.
Because we are drowning in our abundance, it’s too easy and convenient and popular to replace thankfulness with busyness, true friendships with Facebook, and recognize freedom with just another plate of food. The Pilgrims would applaud a delicious eight-course Thanksgiving meal and probably even kick back and watch some football on the couch, but I wonder if they’d shake their heads at all we fail to be thankful for the other 364 days of the year.
This year at the table, go ahead: Ask your family and friends what they’re thankful for—then text them the next day, e-mail them the day after that. If we whispered our gratefulness as often as we jabbered on Twitter or hopped on Facebook, we might be a country whose gracious spirit overflows to the pilgrims of rest of the world, who are still in need.
References: “Of Plymouth Plantation,” by William Bradford; and “N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims,” text by Robert San Souci.