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An American Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

We are a grateful nation. And because we are a grateful nation, we are a generous nation. Our founders were steeped in this idea, and it is still strong among us.

Editor’s note: this article first appeared in THE AMERICAN on November 24, 2010.

It is the most American of holidays. The day when we neither commemorate nor celebrate nor observe anything or anyone. The day we simply go home—if we can and however we can, even if only in our thoughts—and give thanks.

We thank God, as a nation and as individuals.

Yes, “God.” We thank God.

The overwhelming majority of us Americans believe in God, and we thank him this day. In general, we do this unaffectedly and with no ill will for those who may honestly find the thought of a deity troublesome or threatening or amusing or incomprehensible. We leave all the theological details, parsings, and discussions aside on this day.

Dysfunction will be apparent. Bad habits will be confirmed. Awkward encounters will be endured. Hypocrisy will be noted. Equanimity will be tested. Crusty relatives will be humored.

We simply take stock of our blessings, express our gratitude, and hope that others do too, in whatever way it strikes them. But there’s just no getting around it. A lot of prayers will be offered around a lot of tables on Thanksgiving Day. No apologies or explanations needed. After all, we have been doing this as a people since before we were a nation. Thanksgivings preceded all our other American holidays.

We are free, of course, to ignore Thanksgiving, or even curse it. We can sleep or shop our way through it. But by and large we embrace it, because we are a grateful nation. And because we are a grateful nation, we are a generous nation. Threaded through all of Scripture and implanted at the heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic is the idea that gratitude should beget generosity. Our founders were steeped in this idea, and it is still strong in our nation, this “good temper and open-handedness” that Walt Whitman praised in the American people.

So we Americans look forward to Thanksgiving with a special feeling in our hearts. We do not, however, get all wobbly about it. We are prepared to stipulate that, yes, there will be many Homer Simpson moments at our tables this day. Dysfunction will be apparent. Bad habits will be confirmed. Awkward encounters will be endured. Hypocrisy will be noted. Equanimity will be tested. Crusty relatives will be humored, and some will be suffered. Old hurts will be recalled. Embarrassments will occur. And, inevitably, there will be those who have educated themselves into a sullen misery because so many Americans can so blithely go about this day oblivious to the crimes of history and the nation’s need of some well-managed enlightenment.

Threaded through all of Scripture and implanted at the heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic is the idea that gratitude should beget generosity.

But the abiding elements of Thanksgiving—that sweet, ineffable ache of gratitude for blessings bountiful or spare, the thoughts of home and family, the delight in fellowship and in the feast itself—are so palpable within most of us that they triumph over all the cynicism, all the parody and caricature, all the snide efforts to deny or make light of the warmth and good feeling in the hearts of the millions of us who gather together on this day, be it at a dining room table or a truck-stop lunch counter or the kettles in a soup kitchen.

So we will be going over the river and through the woods and down Interstate 95 and across the Texas Panhandle and up the San Diego Freeway and over to the Upper Peninsula and through the phalanx of TSA screeners to be where we want to be on Thanksgiving. For some of us, the trip will have to be made only in our hearts or on the wings of nostalgia.

We thank God this day. In general, we do this unaffectedly and with no ill will for those who may honestly find the thought of a deity troublesome or threatening or amusing or incomprehensible.

But this lust to be home, to be with family or special friends, rolls all the more strongly through us at this time of year. With the advent of the automobile, Thanksgiving became, more than ever, a day of reunion, of coming home. Almost 40 million of us will travel by car this Thanksgiving, crowding the rest stops and service plazas, listening to the imperturbable voice of the GPS as we wend our way to some familiar street, some farmhouse or doublewide or apartment building.

Once we are there, wherever it may be, we will bask in familiar rituals and revel in new ones. Those we know and love, who must eat their turkey at a camp mess in Iraq or on some rocky slope in Afghanistan, will not be just in our thoughts. We will thankfully talk to them and see them on our phones and PCs. We will plot our Black Friday strategies while crunching celery stalks from the relish tray. Or we will huddle around the laptop and one-click our Christmas order on Amazon while the turkey is being basted in the kitchen and the Detroit Lions play on the television. We will meet the friends of sons and daughters home from college, play football on the lawn or Wii in the living room. We will renew old friendships and maybe old feuds, engage in the bonhomie of the table while discretely contemplating a nephew’s tattoo or that last slice of pumpkin pie. We will discuss on full stomachs the interesting possibilities of the leftovers. Through the medium of a small, shiny plastic disc, we will sit on the couch and watch Miracle on 34th Street for the 34th time and anticipate each line. We will have our day and be thankful in it. Happy Thanksgiving, America!

Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Bennett previously honored “The Guardians” on Veteran’s Day, commemorated “The Elegant Jeep,” and reminded us how Americans love “Truckin’.” Missouri farmer Blake Hurst joins us to “Give Thanks for This Harvest.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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