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N. C. Wyeth, “Thanksgiving Banquet”
Today being today, I’m posting a (slightly altered) piece previously published in the November 2005 issue of Perspectives magazine.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and I’ve given considerable thought as to why that is so. After all, we’re told that real Christians should live in and out of Easter, while Christians as they are, at least in North America, have long since converged entirely with the culture in making Christmas #1. Worse still, by the measure of faith, Thanksgiving is the one religious holiday in the United States that gets its warrant from state instead of church.
Doubtless, memories—especially childhood memories—play a big role in this preference of mine. Yet my recollections of Christmas are hardly so bad as to drop that day below Thanksgiving. Ours was a family richer in respectability than in coin, but we hardly lacked for presents beneath the tree. I suspect that poor Christmas got crushed by the enormous weight of expectations built up over those long December weeks of ever colder, darker days. Actual experience could hardly measure up to the determined cheer of our frantic preparations. Think of it as a meal. All the hors d’oeuvres—the school party, the church pageant with an orange and box of chocolates for each Sunday Schooler in attendance, the gathering of paternal clan here and maternal clan there—would suddenly give over to a church service about Baby Jesus that seemed to come off an entirely different a menu. Hardly a main course at all. And for dessert? Leftovers, and tossing out the tree.
A Stealth Holiday
But mainly, I think, Thanksgiving had the advantage of being a stealth holiday, the start of a two-day + weekend reprieve after three months of unbroken school. I liked it that, even in Michigan, you could still play outside on the day. I liked it that football, the game at hand, gave some privilege to people big and slow, like me. I especially liked it that on this one day I could watch professional football—yea, even the home-state Detroit Lions—which otherwise fell beneath the ban on Sunday television-viewing in our resolutely sabbatarian home. (We can argue whether the Lions, with their unparalleled record of losing broken by occasional fits of mediocrity, truly constitute a major-league professional team, but that’s a topic for another occasion.) In any case, Thanksgiving had ritual magic: turkey and cranberry sauce—a unique blend of smell, taste, and color—appeared on the table for their annual visit. For humor there was the competition of boy cousins inhaling mashed-potatoes-and-gravy beneath the disgusted looks of secretly delighted mothers.
David Foster Wallace, “Peaceful Prairie”
That was then; why still Thanksgiving now? Why, especially when it seems that so many aren’t actually giving thanks at all but acceding to the market tyranny of Black Friday and cyber Monday opening the Most Important Shopping Season of the Year? It is just these, I think, that make Thanksgiving’s stealth-like quality more important than ever—the chance to savor a day in its own right while everyone else is fixated on the four-week future. And to savor not just a day, but a day off. My first semester of full-time teaching involved preparing three lecture courses from scratch after intense months of revising and producing (with pre-word-processing technology) a 400+ page dissertation. I have never been so tired in my life as I was that November, nor more delighted to make sage stuffing on Thanksgiving eve. An evening and a morning and then another afternoon given over to complete relaxation without a trace of prep-guilt. Such joy is never forgotten.
Celebrating such a peace animated the original harvest-home festivals of the New England settlers who bequeathed this holiday to the nation. In their farming cycle, November really did mark the end of the year, and so with “all . . . safely gathered in/ere the winter storms begin,” they could genuinely, with heart and hand, put down their labors, give thanks to God for the fruits thereof, and celebrate together the completion of another long round through weal and woe and weather of every sort. It is difficult, in a wireless (and therefore entirely tied-up) society, ever to get such a moment of release. Stealthy, settled-down Thanksgiving can still be that, if we care.
Sundays in my childhood were supposed to be calibrated to the cycle of the Heidelberg Catechism, so it was only later that I discovered the church year as many Christian communions observe it. With it I discovered too that Thanksgiving weekend often coincides with either the last or the first Sunday of the liturgical round, with another ending or a new beginning. At first I jealously guarded Thanksgiving—plain American, Pilgrims and football—against such high-church encroachments. But then I thought of what a good fit they make. Saluting Christ as king or anticipating Christ as the king coming again, one is delivered for the moment from the relentless strain of doing to an appreciation of the Doer who has finished the important work and oversees whatever labors we can offer up in our own time.
These coinciding markers can help us lean against the prevailing winds. Early Advent sermons on repentance and the coming judgment permit some distance from the compulsory joys of Christmas preparations. Golfing in the lowering twilight of a late November day, one can savor the delight not only of stealing another round from Mother Nature but of glimpsing how the low-slanting sun suddenly makes a bare willow glow yellow against a brown-gray afternoon. Another drive in the thicket? Right where you find it, red berries turn up on bare twigs over their fallen leaves. No beauty is more precious than the spare sort where none was supposed to be found. Hope you find some of your own this day.
Our favorite holiday as well! So much to be thankful for!
Do you remember the 1962 Lions/Packers game, the infamous, “Bad Day for Green Bay.” The Lions won 26-14. Starr was sacked 11 times and the Lions got revenge for an earlier 9-7 loss. My Dad, brothers, and I were especially thankful on that day. I remember the strange mixture of “liturgies” of Thanksgiving Day, liturgies of faith and civil religion, worship and football. All this made it my favorite holiday as well, but looking back I have some ambivalence about it all. It was only years later that I began to disentangle the the weave of faith and civil religion in my life.
I have to say that one of my memories of childhood Thanksgivings is your dad consistently shouting at the television as year after year the Lions managed to lose another Thanksgiving Day game. And yes, I thought of him last Thursday as they managed to lose yet again.