Thanksgiving should transcend our differences
Today we celebrate Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays. We share turkey and pie with friends and family. We remember the Pilgrims who settled on this continent from Europe and found friends among the Native Americans. We give thanks for the bounty of the harvest and all the good that has come in the past year. We carry on a tradition that goes back centuries.
In fact, Thanksgiving isn’t as uniquely American as we like to think. Breaking bread together and expressing gratitude to Jesus, Allah, one’s ancestors or an uncaring universe that saw fit to spark sentient life here transcends one people, one culture and one nation.
The Thanksgiving celebrated by the Plymouth Pilgrims was preceded by millennia of fall harvest festivals around the world. It would have been truly strange if no one had thought, prior to 1621, to throw a party celebrating the harvesting of the crops.
Canada celebrates its Thanksgiving in October. In India, they have Ona. In Germany it’s Erntedankfest. And Japan has Kinrō Kansha no Hi – Labor Thanksgiving Day. Some are national holidays, such as Thanksgiving in the United States, while others are informal annual celebrations. All are special to the people who participate.
There isn’t even a straight line to the Pilgrims. For more than a century, harvest festivals were local events. Then, George Washington declared a day of public thanksgiving in 1789. It didn’t stick.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln revived the practice, proclaiming in 1863, “I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
Presidents continued to issue proclamations every year for decades. Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally established the modern national holiday in 1941.
For many people, Thanksgiving has religious importance, as they offer thanks to the divine. But it is not uniquely Christian. The idea of giving thanks spans many faiths.
“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name,” the Old Testament commands.
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,” The New Testament adds.
“O ye who believe! Eat of the good things that we have provided for you, and be grateful to Allah, if it is him ye worship,” the Koran states.
Even the cornucopia, that subject of so many children’s construction paper masterpieces, isn’t ours. The original horn of plenty dates back to ancient Greek mythology. The idea of bountiful food arose in West African stories, too, “Thunder went into the cottage and fetched a fine cooking-pot, which he presented to Anansi, telling him that he need never be hungry again. The pot would always supply enough food for himself and his family. Anansi was most grateful and left Thunder with many thanks.”
None of this means our Thanksgiving isn’t special. It is special, even more so because it touches something fundamental about being human, not just about being American.
The value of giving thanks and the bonds forged over a meal are far more important than the transient, things that set people apart. Views on race, immigration status and politics too often divide us. On Thanksgiving, at least, when we look across the table and beyond, let us not see the differences but the universal things that we share with all humans. When we see those, it will be much easier to work on the rest.
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