AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
“Thanksgiving dinner will cost 20% more this year compared to last year,” Just the News reported this past week. The article cited a Farm Bureau survey published this past Wednesday showing that for a second year in a row, Americans have the dubious privilege of seeing record prices at Thanksgiving. Some news outlets are now referring to it as “the great turkey shortage of 2022.” A Personal Capital study found that not only are more Americans cutting down their menu or asking guests to bring part of the meal, but one in four Americans is planning to skip the celebration all together.
Though there’s a lot more bad news out there, I hope that 25% reconsiders their choice. Though the bad news in the past two years has not been in any short supply, we as a country need Thanksgiving the feast this year because we need thanksgiving the action more than ever. Giving thanks is deeply rooted in the American past, deeply rooted in the Christian and Jewish faiths that are foundational to American thinking, and deeply rooted in what it is to be a human. It is also necessary for any true renewal of this country.
There is not only a steady drumbeat of pessimism and Bidenomics that threatens Thanksgiving. There is also the persistent naddering of the revisionist historical nabobs. You will no doubt read some debunking articles this week informing us that the famed three-day festival celebrated by the Plymouth Colony in November of 1621 with a large group of the Wampanoag tribe was not actually a “thanksgiving” feast but simply an agrarian harvest festival with accidental Native American participation. The real first Thanksgiving in that colony would only be called two years later in 1623 in response to the ending of a drought. We would only look back on that 1621 feast as the “first Thanksgiving” starting in the nineteenth century. And the Pilgrims themselves were dour Puritans who hated organized festivals not demanded of them in Scripture—they would have bah-humbugged not only the developed American Christmas but also Thanksgiving. Oh, yeah, and the relationship with the Wampanoag deteriorated within a decade and they probably didn’t eat turkey during those three days!
All of this is true. And yet, what exactly is the point? Are we expected to believe that those hard-core Puritan figures would have had any kind of feast without it being motivated by the act of thanksgiving to Almighty God? After all, what we know of those three days comes largely from a letter back to England from the Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who recounted the “Indian corn,” barley, peas (not very good), fowl, and deer that went into the celebration, adding that “although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
You don’t have to share the exact brand of puritan Christianity of Winslow and that band to remember that moment in time as a moment of plenty and peace given by the goodness of God or to share in Winslow’s evident gratitude and charity.
The Pilgrims aren’t our only source for this pattern. Partisans of the Commonwealth of Virginia will no doubt tell you that the really real first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1619 by those 38 English settlers on board the Margaret who had arrived December 4 by way of the James River at what would be called Charles City.
And lest the free state of Florida take second place in anything in the year of our Lord 2022, you will probably hear that the absolutely really real first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated by Spanish settlers in the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, on September 8, 1565.
All this is to say that the roots of Thanksgiving run deep. The tradition of an official day of Thanksgiving was a pretty obvious choice to make for America’s own founding fathers. President George Washington’s proclamation of a national Thanksgiving in 1789 gave plenty of reasons for this new and fragile country—with much less material wealth than we enjoy—to be dedicated “to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” He included:
the kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
Though we did not have an official annual Thanksgiving Day until President Lincoln declared one in 1863, the tradition had continued, and for good reason. Insofar as this country has always drawn on Jewish and Christian influences, a day of thanksgiving matches exactly what lies at the heart of these two faiths.
As Aviyah Kushner argued several years ago, the Jews are literally “the people of gratitude.” Jews are named from the patriarch Judah—they are literally “the Judahs.” Though it doesn’t come through in translation, the name itself is connected to the Hebrew word for gratitude or thanks. That is no mere play on words, for as Kushner points out, once you realize the gratitude that is at the heart of Jewish faith, “you see it everywhere in Jewish texts.” The Psalms are filled with it.
So too with Christians who take the Psalms as their basic prayer book. It is gratitude to God that runs through the heart of Christian faith. “Eucharist,” the name given by Christians to the ritual at the heart of Christian worship, literally means “thanksgiving.” The Christian insight is that the greatest worship that we can offer is Jesus himself, who offered his life as a sacrifice to his Father on behalf of humanity by complete obedience even to the point of death. It is Jesus who gave thanks perfectly to God by using all his gifts for God’s purposes.
Giving thanks to God is a human thing and one that ultimately determines our happiness. “When it comes to life,” the English writer G. K. Chesterton wrote, “the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
That opposition between presumption and gratitude is important for us to remember. It is only when we remember that what we have did not have to be there, that it is a gift, that we wonder how it is that we have it at all. And when we do that, we realize that we give thanks for our gifts not only with words but by using those gifts wisely and by preserving them. It is when we understand where our blessings come from that we understand that gratitude involves a lot of work in maintaining them. To do that work of gratitude and maintenance we also need God’s help.
George Washington’s proclamation gave many reasons for thanks. But he added that this day of Thanksgiving should include plenty of petitionary prayer. For what? Washington tells us that we should ask God:
to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
It can be tempting for Americans in a time of trial to grow weary and simply give up. There have been so many lost battles. The scales are tilted against us. Have you seen how much the turkey costs? Why bother when so much of the system is rigged?
If you’re thinking this way or feeling this way, celebrate this Thanksgiving Day by thinking back to the many blessings this country has had and you have had in it. Think how much this country has itself been a gift of Almighty God. Think how often this country has been in desperate straits and come through stronger and better for those struggles. And thank God for this country, asking that you be enabled to do your part in renewing this nation and helping to make it, as President Washington said, “a blessing to all the people.”
David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.
We hope you've enjoyed this article. While you're here, we have a small favor to ask...
Support AMAC Action. Our 501 (C)(4) advances initiatives on Capitol Hill, in the state legislatures, and at the local level to protect American values, free speech, the exercise of religion, equality of opportunity, sanctity of life, and the rule of law.Donate Now