Gratitude is a virtue. It’s moral and it’s healthy. Thanksgiving is a day to practice this virtue, rendering the efforts to rebrand the holiday an attack on thankfulness itself. In times of war and times of peace, there is always reason for pain. That we have a holiday dedicated to gratitude does not invalidate any of these reasons. It soothes our pains but does not dismiss them.
Indeed, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War, making this very argument explicitly in his proclamation. Thanksgiving has always been about pausing in bad times to give thanks for the good.
“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity … peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict,” Lincoln wrote. The first two sentences of his Thanksgiving proclamation make note of “bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.”
The first Thanksgiving itself celebrated not merely a bountiful harvest, but a bountiful harvest enjoyed amidst suffering and scarcity. “For the English, [the first Thanksgiving] was also celebrating the fact that they had survived their first year here in New England,” Tom Begley of Plimoth Plantation told the History Channel.
Both the English and the Native Americans present at the first Thanksgiving had strong traditions of ritual gratitude. “We as native people [traditionally] have thanksgivings as a daily, ongoing thing,” Linda Coombs, a former director of the Wampanoag program at Plimoth Plantation, explained to the Christian Science Monitor. “Every time anybody went hunting or fishing or picked a plant, they would offer a prayer or acknowledgment.”
Pain and suffering are baked into the very fabric of Thanksgiving, as well they should be. We give thanks not to whitewash history or mitigate challenges of the present. We give thanks because of those struggles.
Modernity cushions us from the suffering that induced these ritual expressions of gratitude. In this age of dollar-menu abundance, where starvation in our country is rare, rich and poor alike are less reliant on nature for immediate survival and therefore less likely to celebrate every bite of turkey or every sip of water. But our food and other bounties still sustain us. We need them to survive, no matter how easy it is for us to eat or treat the common cold.
The Bible is clear that we are to give thanks “in all circumstances.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.)
Efforts to rebrand Thanksgiving as a day for rejecting customary gratitude in the interest of focusing only on evil are immoral and unhealthy, both culturally and psychologically. If ingratitude characterizes an individual, no matter how aggrieved, they will be miserable and unproductive. The same is true of a country.
That isn’t to say we should accept present injustices or forget injustices of the past. But a national holiday of Thanksgiving is no enemy of the disenfranchised. Marginalized people throughout history, in times of much less abundance, have practiced gratitude in their darkest days. Thanksgiving is not about a fantasy of perfection or revisionist history. We must be grateful for the good precisely because of the bad. We are alive and we are full.
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.