American thanksgiving, 2006

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

– Thornton Wilder

Thanksgiving occupies a special place in the American consciousness. We have made it a distinctly American holiday, with parades and football games and turkey dinners, and it is a day directly linked to our mythic past. We have embraced that First Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims and Wampanoags and elevated it into a founding national holiday. We are drawn to this day.

Why is that? Perhaps because Thanksgiving taps into some distinctly American beliefs about faith, family, and freedom. While it is a secular holiday in one sense (often cited as the perfect example of a national ritual divorced from formal religion), in another, it is not; after all, who are we giving thanks to? Whether publicly or privately we offer thanks to God (or Jehovah, or Allah, or a Supreme Being), a reflection of the deeply religious nature of Americans.

The celebration of freedom is also bound up with this holiday; while the Pilgrims were thankful for simple physical survival at their inaugural Thanksgiving feast in 1621, they never forgot their reason for coming to the New World—they came for the freedom to practice their own version of Christianity.

President George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789 recognized this duality, this mixture of faith and freedom. He called for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness” and included “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed” as another favor from “the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

At the bottom of all this is the notion that somehow America—the United States—is different, that this country is, as Ronald Reagan often reminded us “a shining city on a hill,” a place to start over, freed from the errors and ignorance of the Old World, and that we should be greatful and thankful for that fresh start.

Brown University’s Arnold L. Weinstein, a comparative literature scholar, has noted that no other society has held the American belief that “we can make ourselves and our lives into something beyond the origins and influences of our births, a theme sometimes called the American dream.” (This individualism, Weinstein notes, drives many Europeans crazy—they reject “American exceptionalism” in favor of a more communitarian philosophy.)

I know I am thankful for this notion of individual freedom when I sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with my family; I think many Americans share that feeling.

That is not to discount the wonders of family and community, and the need for strong civic and social institutions; we need all that. But what makes us different is that we have placed a greater value on individual freedom, even at the cost of social inequality, and have resisted the coercion and conformity that a more egalitarian society might require. That freedom gives us, as historian Daniel Boorstin once wrote, “the opportunity to be what we never thought we would be.” An opportunity to be quite thankful for on November 23, 2006.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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