Here in the United States, we are taught in elementary school that our annual Thanksgiving holiday goes back to the story of the Pilgrims celebrating survival and harvest with their Native American neighbors.
But while that myth does underlie the holiday to a degree, Thanksgiving as a holiday started during the Civil War, when first a governor and then President Lincoln proclaimed it after the tide began to turn for the Union.
That is, we are giving thanks for the survival of our country after a rebellion.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson explains it here.
I find the Pilgrim story problematic, given the genocidal history of European settlers and the indigenous population.
But the Civil War history is something I can get behind these days, especially after a week when some leaders of the January 6 insurrection have finally been convicted of sedition.
I am thankful that the country survived the latest effort to destroy it by white supremacist authoritarians. The current crop of extremists are very similar to those who started the Civil War in that they believe the country should be run by white men, preferably wealthy white men.
We are still at risk from these people and should they succeed, Thanksgiving would become a travesty. But so long as we can keep holding them off, it is a tradition I can believe in.
I suspect that the Pilgrim bit was emphasized in an effort at “unity” post war. I’m not sure we were even taught that Lincoln started it in my Texas schools, where the Civil War was taught as between “us” and “them.”
But I felt renewed this past Thanksgiving when I realized I could give thanks that our democracy is still hanging in there. The U.S. has a lot flaws, but what it would be under the kind of authoritarians who think slavery was good and women shouldn’t vote is not to be contemplated.
I do not feel so sanguine about Christmas. This week The New York Times had a piece on how economists are not sure whether the Christmas shopping season will be a good one.
Think about that for a minute: Christmas shopping is so important to our economy that economists are speculating on whether it will be “healthy” or not.
This is the thinking that gave us the obscenity of Black Friday — the idea that retailers make a profit because of excessive consumption for a holiday.
Thanksgiving has been reduced to Christmas preparation. Holiday decorations were already up before Thanksgiving and now they’re everywhere.
Now I’m not religious, though I was raised Episcopalian. But back during my teenage years, when my family was active in our church, Christmas was, to me, primarily a religious holiday. The music and ritual mattered.
I still love the music and ritual; I just can’t deal with the idea of God or gods or the position of the church in our political life. The Episcopal Church has done better than most Christian denominations on this front, but I find it impossible to be part of any church when I don’t believe in God or even the idea of god. I have spiritual leanings, but they don’t fit into organized religion.
So I’m not talking sacrilege here. Christmas as a festival, after all, took the place of winter solstice celebrations in Europe. And I’m all for celebrations and festivals. I think they’re an important part of human life.
But our economy should not be built on a festival—any festival. And that festival should not take over everything going on in the month of December, only to be dropped like a hot potato on the 26th, when people start shopping again.
I will leave the very valid complaints from those who are not Christians in the capable hands of those who often point out that Christmas is not relevant if you’re Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or Pagan, not to mention atheist. My own objections are to the consumerism that dominates the whole month of December.
It also strikes me that the economic over-emphasis on Christmas is one reason why people ignored reasonable pandemic precautions, since it is sold as a time for “family.” “This might be grandma’s last Christmas” they said, and got together in December 2020, making it more than likely that it would be grandma’s last Christmas. The myths that make people go out and shop overcame common sense and I don’t think that was an accident.
We need festivals and holidays, but our economy shouldn’t be built on them. Religious holidays are important to the people of those religions, but that means people should get the time off work for their religious holidays and the rest of society should not be sacrificed for one religion’s special feast.
By the way, if a former Christian is entitled to opine on the subject, I think that if Christianity is going to focus on one holiday in particular it should be Easter.
Thanksgiving is a good secular holiday for the U.S. these days. We should build it up as a celebration of democracy, not let it be an adjunct to Christmas shopping.
If the authoritarians and right wing extremists don’t like it, it’s obvious they’re anti-American. Which, in fact, they are.
4 thoughts on “The Last Holiday and the Next One”
As a devout (Orthodox) Christian, I agree completely about Easter being the holiday Christians should focus on. As a church-school pupil of mine, aged 6 or so, put it: “Everybody was born but only Christ rose from the dead!”
It does seem more important.
I think every religion should hold its celebrations. And I think we should also have secular celebrations that include everyone. And none of them should involve spending so much money that they’re a major factor in the economy.
I don’t suppose “Amen!” is quite the response you’re looking for, but it’s what I feel. I agree about the destructive commercial focus of the holidays in American culture. I would add that the practice of extravagant feasting on Thanksgiving (which in many cases leads to a lot of leftover food being wasted, thrown away) is also unhealthy. Sure, have a feast, but don’t go overboard. It’s the gathering of loved ones to share gratitude that’s important.
I love music and ritual too. And like you, “I have spiritual leanings, but they don’t fit into organized religion.” That’s a perfect description.
The patriarchal Christian church hoped to obliterate earlier celebrations of the winter solstice by plonking Christmas on top of it. Not entirely successful, thankfully. Many religions and spiritual practices celebrate the season of the return of light, which has multiple interpretations. They can coexist in harmony.
My favorite way of marking such occasions is twofold: I love to get outside in nature and remember how amazing this planet, our home, is; and I love to gather with friends and loved ones to share music, ritual, moderate feasting, and joy.
Amen is the perfect word!
And I agree about not eating to excess at feasts, either, though I confess I find it hard to do when there is a lot of tasty food.
I like getting out in nature for most holidays. It’s how I’ve been celebrating my birthday the last few years.