Thanks, but No Thanks

The debate over “the war on Christmas” spreads to Thanksgiving.

Anyone who has ever had to listen to foodies argue over which wine pairs best with turkey knows that Thanksgiving can inspire vehement—and tiresome—disagreement. But of all the questions connected with our celebration of Thanksgiving, none provokes as much heat as the debate over religion’s place at the table.

A few years ago, some Christians began to sound the alarm about a “war on Christmas,” alleging that schools, courts, and local governments were transforming a sacred holiday into a secularized winter festival. Now, much as the 24-hour Christmas music on the radio seems to start earlier each year, a few believers are voicing their worry about the secularization of our society in November instead of December. Concerned about the eroding religious dimension of Thanksgiving, they urge a return to a more sacred holiday. If the war-on-Christmas crowd asks us to put Christ back into Christmas, these Thanksgiving religionists urge us to celebrate Thanksgiving with the emphasis on thanking God. But complaints about a secularized Thanksgiving are even less convincing than the outcry over Christmas.

As holidays go, Thanksgiving has long suffered from an especially acute spiritual identity crisis. Even the most casually religious Americans say grace or otherwise offer thanks before Thanksgiving dinner—even if the thanking is done between pie-eating binges. On the other hand, it’s not as common for us to attend a worship service on Thanksgiving as it is on more obviously religious days like Christmas and Easter. So, just how religious of a holiday should we consider Thanksgiving? Some seem to want to answer that question by telling us exactly how and whom to thank.

In Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, Eric Reed decried a “thankless society” that has forgotten the holiday’s putative religious significance. R. Albert Mohler Jr. of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary called the secular vision of Thanksgiving “empty and false” on the Washington Post religion blog, On Faith. And conservative Web site WorldNetDaily offers up Thanksgiving-themed magnetic bumper stickers that counsel, “Remember to thank HIM”—perhaps an admonition to those who would merely thank their lucky stars.

For these spiritual defenders of Thanksgiving, it’s not so much Christmas-style commercialization that threatens their holiday—although pre-Christmas big-box sales and football on Fox might strike some as unholy distractions. Instead, much of their concern centers on the way the traditional stories of the first Thanksgiving most of us learned in grade school have been disputed, if not abandoned. For religious thanks-givers, it is the attempt to revise the historical record that is helping to strip the holiday of its proper spiritual meaning.

In a 2004 Wall Street Journal essay titled “A Very Christian Holiday,” Yale professor David Gelernter credited “Christian fundamentalists” with creating a holiday that “would inspire and soothe this nation if only we would let it.” He wrote, “The First Thanksgiving is one of those heartwarming stories that every child used to know, and some up-to-date teachers take special delight in suppressing.” The old first Thanksgiving story suggested that God had smiled on the pious pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony and, by extension, on the whole American project. Today, school lessons are just as likely to stress the harm done to natives by colonization. (Right-wing bloggers have reacted strongly to a Seattle public-school resource that suggests that Thanksgiving can be a time of mourning for native students.)

It’s not just the PC-ification of the holiday that’s frustrating traditionalists. Historians have spent the last few decades chipping away at traditional Thanksgiving stories. Many accounts now say the 1621 event that we call the first Thanksgiving was not a religious event and, therefore, not a formal day of thanksgiving as the Plymouth colonists would have understood it—a European practice of observing days of thanksgiving with solemn religious services in the morning and afternoon. Instead, the 1621 event was closer to a harvest festival, with its feasting, games, and celebratory gunfire—it was the shooting that likely brought the colonist’s native Wampanoag neighbors over to investigate and join in the fun. (The Wampanoag had their own thanksgiving traditions that also involved communal feasting.) While it’s certainly plausible to imagine the colonists offering prayers of thanks on that day, they did not use the word thanksgiving in association with the 1621 celebration, according to the Web site of Plimoth Plantation, the historical museum devoted to life at the Plymouth Colony. (You’ll also get an argument about whether the so-called “first Thanksgiving,” was even a first in what would become the United States. Challenges to the priority of Plymouth have come from Virginia and New Mexico, where some say colonists declared days of thanksgiving before the Massachusetts colonists even made it to Plymouth.)

The first religious day of thanksgiving at Plymouth may actually have been in 1623—and not in autumn, but in late summer—when the colonists offered up their thanks to God after a six-week drought. Occasional days of thanksgiving were declared throughout the colonial era and into the years of the early republic. But it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln called for late-November Thanksgivings in 1863 and 1864—and used explicitly religious language to do so—that the day became an annual, permanent fixture.

But religiously minded supporters of Thanksgiving say that in discarding the traditional first Thanksgiving stories, we risk losing a critically meaningful part of the holiday. “Pilgrims, once champions of religious freedom, are being sacrificed as bigots on the altar of political correctness,” Reed wrote. “So who’s calling us all to give thanks now?”

It’s true that revisionists, in their insistence on toppling myths, can come across like whiney nitpickers. And myths do have their own cultural value. But the problem is that holidays turn into a tug of war between cold, hard history and comforting popular folklore, between fact and faith. Shouldn’t our holidays be able to accommodate both?

Do we really have to choose between the extremes of calling Thanksgiving a religious holiday or a civic celebration, a day more like Easter or more like the Fourth of July? Or can’t we assume that the holiday has evolved as some more subtle mix of the secular and the spiritual, one that each of us can adjust according to our own values? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume some religious dimension to Thanksgiving, if only because expressing gratitude for the good things in life is in some sense an inherently spiritual act. But prescribing to others the right way to observe the day is surely one aspect of the traditional Thanksgiving best left behind.

Even if Thanksgiving is a religious holiday, it must rank as the most accessible of all. Unlike on other holidays, as Reed points out, there are no potentially mystifying doctrines (like resurrection or virgin birth) to wrestle with, and the environmental themes (the Wampanoag practiced something like sustainable agriculture) are certainly in step with the times. Ministers say the day can be popular with people who want to test the religious waters. They head for churches and soup kitchens on Thanksgiving, attracted by the spirit of ecumenism and the emphasis on sharing and good works. If you had to identify Thanksgiving with any particular religious tradition, it might be part of what sociologist Robert Bellah called the American civil religion, combining elements of American history and myth with a general belief in Providence.

Even adamant nonbelievers such as philosopher Daniel C. Dennett say they have no problem with Thanksgiving, stipulating that thanks are directed to “goodness,” not God. True, that runs afoul of those who insist on “thanking HIM.” But for the perennially disputatious Thanksgiving table, that can be considered close enough.

Now if we could just settle on the right wine to serve.