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VOL. 45 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 19, 2021

Thanksgiving has good claim for top US holiday

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As the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving approaches, I suggest that maybe the annual celebration should be recognized as America’s top holiday. Ahead even of Christmas, the perennial No. 1.

I realize this is not a popular notion for many people. Better than the birthday of Jesus? Blasphemy!

Hear me out.

I’ll concede Christmas has some strong cultural arguments on its side. For starters, it lays claim to not just a single day, but a whole season. There are lots of heart-warming songs associated with it and some delightful movies and TV programming. There are those (me not among them) who count the season a loss if they don’t see “It’s a Wonderful Life.” My wife and I make a point of watching the original Grinch cartoon every Christmas Eve.

And, of course, the traditions, from decorating the tree to sending out cards to spiked eggnog and a kiss under the mistletoe. Oh, and presents. Who doesn’t like presents?

On the deficit side, I would point out that Christmas doesn’t even rank first on the Christian religious calendar. That honor goes to Easter, and with good reason: If it weren’t for the singular event commemorated on Easter, there would probably be no Christmas.

Plus, and this is a biggie: Not everyone is a Christian, so not everyone is inclined to get into the Yule spirit.

Note: This column is not part of a war on Christmas. Having solved my longstanding inadequacies as a gift-giver (largely, by not giving many), I am decidedly pro-Christmas.

It’s just that the raison d’e^tre for Thanksgiving – acknowledging life’s blessings – is something that can apply to all. It’s hard to mount an argument for ingratitude.

(Aside: I try to work “raison d’e^tre” into a column or conversation whenever possible. Remind me sometime to tell you the story of how Spike’s use of it led me to become a fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”)

What the Pilgrims unofficially began in 1621 has developed deep official roots in our society.

The Continental Congress in 1777 recommended setting apart Dec. 18 of that year as for “solemn thanksgiving and praise.” George Washington, after being petitioned to do so by Congress, issued a proclamation in 1789 calling on Americans to acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Abraham Lincoln followed suit in 1863, suggesting that all Americans ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He specified the date as the last Thursday in November.

That pretty much continued until Franklin Roosevelt pushed it a week earlier – to extend post-Turkey Day Christmas shopping – in 1939-40. That idea didn’t catch on, and in 1941, Congress codified the fourth Thursday in November.

And there we remain.

In the interest of fairness, I should also note that while gratitude is indeed a universal concept, not everyone feels gratitude for the same things. A recent article in The Washington Post reported that members of the Wampanoag Nation – whose Native American ancestors helped the Pilgrims survive their early trials – consider it a day of mourning.

By the way, the Wampanoags were not invited to that first feast, the article states. They showed up only after hearing celebratory gunfire and fearing the worst. Finding instead a harvest festival meal, they joined in and added food.

That initial enthusiasm has waned in light of subsequent events, their life-sustaining efforts ultimately rewarded by having their land taken and their people all but wiped out.

“That’s not something we celebrate because it resulted in a lot of death and cultural loss,” the head of the tribe’s school said. “Thanksgiving doesn’t mean to us what it means to many Americans.”

I’m not without sympathy for their point of view today. It’s important to know for a fuller understanding of American history. So while we soon pass the turkey, green bean casserole and deviled eggs, let’s also be mindful that blessings for some are not necessarily blessings for all.

And let’s give thanks for the Wampanoags.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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