Thanksgiving Day.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 November 2023

In the United States, we have a national day of thanksgiving on November’s fourth Thursday.

Whom are we giving thanks to? Well, the act which establishes Thanksgiving Day as one of our national holidays, provides no instructions whatsoever on how we’re to observe it. Or whom we’re to thank.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the last Thursday in November in each year after the year 1941 be known as Thanksgiving Day, and is hereby made a legal public holiday to all intents and purposes and in the same manner as the 1st day of January, the 22d day of February, the 30th day of May, the 4th day of July, the first Monday of September, the 11th day of November, and Christmas Day are now made by law public holidays.

—77th Congress, 6 October 1941
House Joint Resolution 41

The Senate amended it to read “fourth Thursday in November,” and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law. So it’s a holiday. But left undefined, ’cause our Constitution won’t permit Congress to pick a national religion, nor define religious practice. Article 6; Amendment 1 Not that Congress doesn’t bend that rule on occasion. Making “In God We Trust” our national motto, fr’instance.

Though our government is secular, the nation sure isn’t. Four out of five of us Americans call ourselves Christian. (I know; we sure don’t act it. Look at our crime rate. Look at the people we elect.) Regardless, a supermajority of us claim allegiance to Jesus, which is why we bend the Constitution so often and get away with it. Our presidents do as well; our first president was the guy who first implemented a national Thanksgiving Day.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States 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.

—President George Washington, 3 October 1789

Yeah, Americans point to other functions as our “first Thanksgiving.” Usually a harvest celebration by the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. Although technically the first Christian thanksgiving day on the continent was held by the Spanish in Florida in 1565—followed by another in Texas in 1598, and another by the Virginia colonists as early as 1607.

Over time, colonial custom created a regular Thanksgiving Day, held in the fall. Sometimes governments declared a Thanksgiving Day, like the Continental Congress declaring one for 18 December 1777 after the Battle of Saratoga. But Washington’s declaration in 1789 didn’t fix the day nationally—and he didn’t declare another till 1795. States set their own days: In 1816, New Hampshire picked 14 November, and Massachusetts picked 28 November.

It wasn’t till 1863 when it did become regular:

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.

—President Abraham Lincoln, 3 October 1863

Lincoln and his successors declared Thanksgiving every year thereafter.

Thus far these declarations weren’t law; they were presidential proclamations. Unlike executive orders nowadays, they weren’t legally binding. Note Washington only recommended, and Lincoln only invited, all Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving. They didn’t enforce it. ’Cause no government official, no matter how devout, has any business ordering people to worship.

So how’d it become a law? Mammon.

In 1939, during the Great Depression, November’s last Thursday was the 30th. Most Americans insist on only dealing with one major holiday at a time, so they don’t bother to shop for Christmas till the Friday after Thanksgiving (Black Friday, as it’s called). With only 25 shopping days till Christmas, merchants wanted an extra week. So they begged the president, who complied and declared Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday: 23 November.

Republicans made a stink. How dare the President monkey with a sacred day for the sake of materialism? (Yeah, Republicans have changed their tune quite a lot since.) Ignoring Roosevelt, 22 states set the date of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday. But in 1940 and ’41, Roosevelt went even further and declared the third Thursday as Thanksgiving.

Finally the Congress stepped in: Thanksgiving was made an official federal holiday, and set on the fourth Thursday. That’s what it’s been since. There will always be at least 27 shopping days till Christmas.

As it’s practiced.

As I said, Congress didn’t define how Thanksgiving is to be observed. As a federal holiday, all they really gotta do is give most federal employees the day off. States usually follow suit. Banks and financial institutions take the day too. For everybody else it’s optional… and for a lot of merchants, they don’t mind starting the Black Friday sales a few hours before the actual day begins, so it’s not a holiday for their employees. On the contrary.

As Washington and Lincoln defined it, they had an idea praise to the Almighty might be involved. And for the many Americans who imagine themselves Christian, some level of religious devotion is part of the day. Usually it’s an extra-long grace before dinner, as God gets a shout-out for the year’s blessings.

If you’re pagan, and have no religious devotion to speak of, sometimes God gets a mention. Just as often, people take a moment in the day to conjure up a feeling of thankfulness, although they’re not always sure whom they should direct it to. Themselves? The universe? Wherever.

Other customs are to have the family and friends over. Or to eat traditional Thanksgiving foods: A large roast turkey dinner (although certainly some of us will experiment with frying or stewing, or the abomination known as Tofurkey). Stuffing, potatoes, butternut squash or sweet potatoes or candied yams, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, cranberries, cornbread, pies, and various regional or family additions. My own family makes this onion and bleu cheese ball. It’s tasty.

And after the food, either people are so full they can do nothing but digest (and fall asleep in front of a football game, maybe); or they didn’t wanna overeat ’cause they’re ready to hit the extra-early Black Friday sales. Hey, if you can’t be tempted with gluttony, there’s always greed.

Yeah, the gluttony.

You might’ve noticed, by the ever-increasing size of the typical American posterior, we don’t speak out a whole lot against gluttony.

A glutton doesn’t practice moderation. It’s the opposite of self-control. Usually people think gluttony has to do with overeating, but there are all sorts of gluttons. Alcoholics, workaholics, addicts and fanatics of every sort. They either won’t stop themselves, or can’t and refuse to seek help.

Eating a lot of food on Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily gluttony. ’Cause gluttony’s a lifestyle. When you eat till you’re absolutely stuffed, but you only do this a few times a year—at parties or on holidays—that’s not a lifestyle. Now, if that’s how you eat every single day, at every single meal, that’s gluttony. And if you eat to the point of nausea, or eat till you physically hurt yourself… well, it’s no different than drinking till you black out. It’s not a regular lack of self-control, but it’s definitely there.

But to eat till full at a celebration? I can even show you cases where the bible encourages it.

Deuteronomy 8.10 NLT
“When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.”
Nehemiah 8.10 NLT
And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!”

True, there are some Christian killjoys who don’t approve in having this sort of fun. Or indulging in anything, lest it lead to gluttony. I kinda understand this: I have way too many alcoholics in my family, so just to be on the safe side, I don’t drink at all. But banning alcohol altogether, lest anyone turn alcoholic? That’d be legalism. It’s no better than gluttony.

Y’know, some Christians don’t even approve of fun. Usually they lack joy. Sometimes it’s because they feel we Christians oughta be sober, serious people. Sometimes they commit themselves to regular fasting, and refuse to take any breaks for Sabbath or holidays. Sometimes they fear their reputation for piety might be undone with just a little partying. In these instances, we’re not talking real piety. Ironically, it’s just another form of gluttony: They’re overindulging in self-deprivation.

’Cause all overindulgence is gluttony. When God permits us, or even orders us, to celebrate: Celebrate! Once the bridgegroom makes it to the wedding, you stop fasting and enjoy yourself!—and save the fasting till the party’s over. Mt 9.15 Same with Thanksgiving. Unless you have dietary restrictions, eat.

And give thanks.

Sad to say, most of the actual thanksgiving on Thanksgiving only consists of the extra-long before-meal prayer. We thank God for the food and the year’s blessings… and that done, eat before the food gets cold. And that’s all the thanking we do.

Well, sometimes one of the family members insists we all go round the table and each of us say what we’re thankful for. I hate this game. ’Cause sometimes there’s actual gratitude involved (“I’m so glad it’s benign!”), but way too often it consists of humble-bragging (“I’m so glad I got that giant bonus!”) Save it for the Christmas email, folks.

And for some of us, it’s been a rough year. We’re thankful—things could always have been way worse—but things sucked nonetheless. We’re thankful God’s still around, helping us through it. Still, some Thanksgivings the only thing you’re really thankful for is the food. That’s why going round the table is not so fun for everyone: “I’m thankful Mom didn’t put oysters in the stuffing” is gonna sound flippant after “I’m thankful for my wonderful kids.”

But do focus on the positive. Do try to be optimistic: If this year sucked, next year’s gotta be better, right? Remember, God still intends to give you his kingdom!

If you struggle with gratitude and thankfulness and grace, Christmas is coming, and here’s your opportunity to work on it.

So happy Thanksgiving. God bless.