Thursday, November 22, 2007

So what are you thankful for?

Today is Thanksgiving, and Mrs. Wit and I are preparing to spend the majority of the day with family.

It's fairly well known and understood that the earliest versions of what we Americans (and Canadians) would recognize as a "thanksgiving celebration" (note the lower-case "t" in "thanksgiving") where end-of-the harvest celebrations. Examples of such celebrations can be found throughout the world and across a variety of cultures. But in these United States, we are taught to believe that thanksgiving properly has a capital "T" and had its origins in the pilgrims expressing their thanks to God for all their good fortune, and breaking bread with the local Native Americans, who were gosh darn chummy with the colonists. Kind of gives you a nice nostalgic image of the two groups gorging themselves on turkey, maize and bread; after which the goodwives and squaws set about cleaning the dishes while the pilgrim men and braves, bloated and slowly sinking into a food coma, sat back to watch a lacrosse game.

Well, I want to look at what Thanksgiving is supposed to be, what others want us to believe it is, and what it has actually become.

What it is supposed to be.

The United States of America has had several proclamations of a "national day of thanksgiving," but as a proper holiday it did not exist until the FDR administration set it as the fourth Thursday in November in 1939. Prior to that, it was set by presidential proclamation... and such proclamations only happened sporadically until Abraham Lincoln set the last Thursday in November as a "prayerful day of Thanksgiving." After ol' Abe set the benchmark, the Office of the President has made an annual declaration of a National Day of Thanksgiving. All of them talk about how hard we have worked as a nation, about how we should show gratitude for what we have, and give thanks to Almighty God for what we have.

And I can deal with that. I can even accept the "thank Almighty God" part as lip service to the God Believing Voters out there. But what does it mean to be "thankful," which is the core concept behind this holiday of ours?

For an answer, I consulted one of my favorite online resources: Ask Oxford. Say what you will, the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language is considered the standard for definitions of words in what is arguably the lingua franca of Earth.

Ask Oxford defines "thankful" as:
  1. pleased and relieved
  2. expressing gratitude
Hey, this is pretty cool! We'll come back to this in a little bit.

What others want us to believe it is.

If you choose to believe such self-appointed monitors of moral righteousness as Jim Dobson's Focus on the Family and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, the Annual American Turkey Feast is primarily supposed to be about worshipping God and thanking him for all the wonderful things in our lives.

Pardon me. I think I'm having an intestinal cramp.

Oh, wait, sorry. That was just my normal reaction to having read two web articles written (ostensibly) by two Fundamentalist Theocratic Nether Orifices who, when you examine their theology in the cold light of reason, are not that much better than the Taliban. But I digress...

Okay, so Focus on the Family and CBN want us to kneel down to an ineffable omnipresent being who has had more personality changes than Sybil for the turkey, the sweet potatoes, and positive aspects of our lives.

Give me a break.

If we look at the definition of "thankful," above, you might notice something missing from both definitions: God.

I can be pleased and relieved today that no one in my family has died or suffered some tragic loss. I can also be pleased and relieved at the engagements and marriages in my circle of peers, and the births of gurgling babies to my more distant relations. But I don't need to drag God into the whole thing.

And I've already expressed gratitude to my wife for making the fabulous cranberry cheesecake we'll be taking to the table, later today. And I'll more than likely express my gratitude to her (again) for deeming me worthy enough to marry. And I'll be expressing my gratitude to my wonderful in-laws, and I'll be ever so grateful to human ingenuity for developing the agricultural technologies and practices that will allow us to overstack the dining room table and kitchen counters to the point of breaking. And again, I don't see how God has to fit into the entire equation.

In fact, I really appreciate no longer having the burden of imagining an eternal, petty judge looking down upon me and evaluating every move I make and every thought I have. I'm grateful most of all to myself for now being able to look upon the world as it truly is, warts and all, and find it a more beautiful and wondrous place than could ever be painted by pontiffs and preachers.

We, as a species, have enough holidays which we can use to thank God for whatever we want to thank him for, if we are so inclined. I'd just like to take this day to appreciate the good things in my life for their own sake, and nothing more. Yeah, the argument can be made that God makes all these things possible, but that's presupposing God exists. Give me a preponderance of empirical, independently verifiable proof of a supreme being who has cause over our lives, and then we can talk.

In the mean time, as for me and my house, we'll appreciate the people around us and the tangible and intangible things we can give each other: a smile, a hug, another dollop of mashed potatoes and gravy, unconditional love, etc.

What it has become.

Let's face it: Thanksgiving, like New Year's, is a more or less secular holiday in this nation of ours, despite the religious rhetoric contained in the various presidential proclamations. When we talk about Thanksgiving among our friends, relatives and co-workers, what do we really communicate?
  • Travel to see family, sometimes family that is geographically distant (usually for reasons of another kind of distance)
  • Having to deal with family you are obligated to see on such a holiday, but would otherwise ignore (see the preceding bullet point)
  • A big ass feast involving mass quantities of poultry and starch (how many of us call it "Turkey Day?")
  • And, most importantly, it is the starting gun for western capitalism's High Holy Days, the Christmas Shopping Season.
No, I don't like it, either, but let's at least be honest about it.

If we can openly acknowledge - and, more importantly, accept - these truths about Thanksgiving, it will be much easier for us as a people to start making it something more, again. Something about being thankful.

Not thankful for some non-existent uber-daddy in the sky. But rather something more important. More here and now. Something we can reach out, touch, know is there and let it know how much we care.

Let's be thankful for each other.

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