The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan is winding down, but thousands of Americans are still serving in posts there and around the world. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them and to their families this Thanksgiving Day. Their willingness to serve is reason enough to give thanks.
The economy is improving, but millions of Americans are nonetheless headed into the holiday season facing personal hardship or still suffering from the effects of the economic crisis. The stock market is booming, but that is not always reflected in the wider economy. Unemployment remains unacceptably high and the associated pain is real.
It is a compliment to this country and its people, however, that we do not need a war to remind us that we are blessed, or an economic downturn to point out that even the poorest or most distressed Americans are nonetheless well-off compared with much of the world.
It is therefore fitting that one of our most widely observed and deeply cherished holidays is founded on gratitude. For all of the faults we find in ourselves and in each other – and for all the political and cultural divisions we face – as a people, we are wise enough to recognize how lucky we are and humble enough to be thankful.
Most cultures observe some sort of harvest festival, but a national day specifically dedicated to giving thanks is a North American phenomenon. (Canada celebrates Thanksgiving Day on the second Monday in October.) In part, that probably reflects how uniquely blessed we are, and that our good fortune transcends a successful harvest.
By and large, Americans are not only well fed – often too much so – but generally comfortable and, in spite of war, terrorism and economic travails, mostly safe. Even the most downtrodden here have more liberty and more opportunity than most of the people who have ever lived.
True, prosperity and freedom have accrued to individual Americans in unequal portions, often unfairly and sometimes criminally so.
And, as with so many nations, the history of this country is rife with examples of injustice and cruelty.
But Thanksgiving is not about atoning for our sins or whitewashing the past. It is about expressing our thanks for what we have.
That sense of gratitude has been a strong thread throughout the history of the United States. The first Thanksgiving was famously celebrated in 1621, when the Pilgrims shared a harvest feast with neighboring Indians. But for more than 200 years after that, individual American families kept the holiday and established the traditions we know today. That they did so unbidden suggests the depth of the sentiment.
It was not until 1863 – at the height of the Civil War – that President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.
And, if it is now largely the domain of football, Butterball and Ocean Spray, that is merely a reflection of the America of today. Branding is at the heart of U.S. capitalism.
Nonetheless, what most Americans bring to the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day has little to do with commerce and less to do with politics or ideological division. It is not a sense of entitlement, of guilt or superiority, but simple, heartfelt gratitude. It is an honest sentiment, a true tradition, unvarnished by false modesty, untainted by braggadocio. And it becomes us.
Enjoy the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving!