Thanksgiving is a peculiarly American holiday that is wrapped up in legend and myth that don’t bear close historical examination.
True, the Pilgrims and the Indians sat down to a peaceable feast in 1621. It was a rare feel-good moment because only a few decades later bloody and savage — on both sides — wars broke out and would continue on and off across North America for the next two and a half centuries.
The fourth Thursday in November could be the occasion for what educators call “a teachable moment” but that opportunity passed when the forces of political correctness began frowning on children coming to school dressed as Pilgrims and Indians.
Days of Thanksgiving were regularly proclaimed in the early days of the colonies and later the infant United States and what the people were thankful for was simple survival.
One of the most meaningful Thanksgivings was in November 1863. That month was memorialized eloquently and with commendable brevity by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, but the task of proclaiming that particular Thanksgiving Day fell to Secretary of State William Seward.
Seward went on at florid length to implore the Almighty “to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” The Union had survived. But Thanksgiving had changed — no one wanted to look back on the massive bloodshed — and it is changing still.
Mercifully, we no longer, at least for the nonce, have to give national thanks for calamities averted. Instead, we celebrate in a more meaningful fashion.
The holiday has come to symbolize the heroic efforts Americans make to be with their families and loved ones on this one special day.
Indeed, today — the Wednesday before Thanksgiving — is our most heavily traveled day and not even dire forecasts of snow, ice, high winds and heavy rain right across the country have discouraged the bulk of the 43 million of us determined to give thanks together.
The holiday has become commercial; indeed, all of our holidays become commercial. Increasingly, stores are open on Thanksgiving Day.
The following day is Black Friday when retailers hope to turn red ink to black and Cyber Monday has become a special sales day for techno geeks.
The holiday may have evolved and, one hopes, we have too. Give thanks, be careful and have a marvelous Thanksgiving.