Saying grace before carving the turkey in Neffsville, Pennsylvania, 1942
Several countries have days dedicated to giving thanks, often in connection with the fall harvest. The American holiday of Thanksgiving dates back to the 17th Century Puritan origins of New England. George Washington, the country’s first President, declared it a holiday in 1789 under the newly ratified Constitution. It was celebrated on different days in various states. In 1863 Lincoln made it a national holiday which came to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.
Thanksgiving Day has a special feeling to it. It is not exactly a religious feast, yet it is something more than a secular respite. It includes a celebratory family dinner, usually including, among other delicacies, roast turkey, gravy, stuffing, ham, sweet potato, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin or mincemeat pie. Most people claim they eat too much and anticipate left-overs for the following day. I do not think that the original Puritans drank anything too strong, but the modern ones, as a sign of the development of dogma, usually include a glass or two of wine.
The day has the mood of a year or season well-spent; of a quiet get-together with family and friends. Pains are taken that the poor and homeless have a Thanksgiving dinner, that out-of-town or out-of-county guests have a place at someone’s table. Winter in these climes is about here. Christmas is always on the horizon. Macy’s has a parade and much football and basketball are watched. Some even get to church where the bishops have at least written a proper Preface.
The notion of a country taking a day to render thanks to its Creator is not unique to America. But the American holiday does indicate that the country recognized its good fortune. The Bible, a book that so many in the country’s beginnings had read, contains many passages on giving thanks. And while it has become more and more difficult to indicate to whom such thanks should properly be addressed, still most folks recognize that Thanksgiving is not just a self-congratulatory holiday. There is something off-putting when the object of our thanks is ourselves.
Thanksgiving belongs to that level of being that can appreciate that essential things were just given to us, beginning with life itself. Not only did we not earn them, but we also did not deserve them. More is lavished on us than we are capable of receiving. The word “gift” seems to be the most appropriate one to describe what we have through no merit or workings of our own.
When we think of thanking, we immediately wonder to whom such thanks are addressed. Chesterton commented on the fact that thanks, when given, must be given to someone. “Thanks-giving” always presupposes a “someone” capable of receiving them. We do not thank rocks for being rocks, or cows for being cows, even though we are grateful to have both in our world. We can only thank a being that can give or withhold something from us. The withholding of thanks on our part is a form of envy or insult. When Christ asked the cured leper, “but where are the other nine?”, he made it clear that the giving of thanks must arise from the soul of the one who receives something. Enforced thanks-giving is not thanks-giving in any real sense. But not bothering to thank the giver for what is given to us ranks high on the list of human sins.
Thanksgiving brings with it the notion of abundance, of what is more than necessary. We have not been given a world in which we can barely survive. We have been given a world in which we can thrive, in which we can make many mistakes and still carry on. Indeed, one might well maintain that the world abounds as it does so that we can make mistakes in it without our totally destroying it. The very creation of the world included man in its population of many diverse kinds of beings. Indeed, creation itself was entrusted to man not just to keep it but to use it for his own purposes. Somehow, the world could not be the world if we did not exist within it.
When we maintain that gratitude is at the heart of our existence, what do we mean? First of all, we acknowledge that we need not exist. We know that we did not just bubble ourselves up out of nothingness. Our existence is not a matter of justice, that is, no one “owes” us our existence. And while we can and should be grateful to our parents, still they know, and we know, that they did not sit down and plot our individual existence. They were as surprised as anyone that what came forth from them was a you or a me.
We human beings are bound together by the fact that we are all receivers of this initial abundance in creation. It is possible, of course, to maintain that the universe is just there. Not a few, of course, refuse to see it as a gift. Many see no relation between our minds and these things that are. They can thus only give thanks for what they do subsequent to their unanticipated arrival on this planet.
But even if our existence is given, our life is not something that we cause. It was given to us and keeps us in existence somehow. Medicine does not change this relationship. Its purpose is simply to keep us alive and flourishing; what we do when healthy is not the business of medicine.
Implicit in the notion of thanks is someone who receives something from another. We then witness how this gift is received. It was not purchased by us. The giver did not have to give anything to us. Some gifts, like life itself, were simply given with no say on our part as to whether we wanted it or not. Our lives, in a way, are a record of how, in the end, we choose to accept what was given to us.
When we finally recognize that something has been freely given to us, we are on the threshold of gratitude. That is, we recognize that some response, some words, need to be spoken on our part. While any day is appropriate for giving thanks, I like to think that it is a good thing for a people to give thanks for what they are and that they are.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. This year he has published The Universe We Think In and On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.