This year our family did not celebrate Thanksgiving. Why?

The Eucharistic Christ

           It was not to protest the effects of colonization on Native American peoples, for which, some say, Thanksgiving stands as a symbol. Much less was it out of a spirit of ingratitude toward God for his blessings. Nor was it from an ascetical disgust for feasting and drinking. We Zehnders are no ascetics; it does not take much to lure us to the pleasures of the board and barrel. This year, we in no way eschewed the feasting associated with Thanksgiving; we merely held off on it until the Sunday, which, this year, was the Feast of Christ the King. We even had the traditional turkey, with all the usual side dishes, and apple and pumpkin pie. The wine, beer, and port flowed freely.

            But we did not celebrate Thanksgiving.

            This was, in fact, the first Thanksgiving we have sat out. In past years, we would gather with family for the day; this year, too, we planned to do the same, until circumstances of a practical nature prevented it. But, when the occasion permitted it; when we had no one else with whom to celebrate the day, when were effectively free to say yea or nay to Thanksgiving, we said nay. Why?

            One reason is that I have never quite seen the point of Thanksgiving. I know what it’s supposed to be about –giving thanks to God for all his blessings, but that rationale has long struck me as an excuse for the day, not its real meaning. If Thanksgiving has had anything to do with God, it has been reduced to a curt nod to the Big Guy, soon to be forgotten in the fevered amnesia of the Holiday Buying Season. It seems no accident that Black Friday follows Thanksgiving Thursday – and now Cyber Monday, only two days later.

            In fact, giving thanks seems to play hardly a part at all in the events of the day. We Catholics might go to Mass,but we are as likely not to. Televised football games, with all their advertisements inducing to lust, luxury, and avarice, hold a greater place of honor than the eucharistia. Much of the devotion of Thanksgiving is couched in the terms of a flabby and maudlin sentimentality expressive of self-satisfaction rather than a trembling awe at the wonder of divine condescension. It is all rather like the “God bless America” uttered by seeming-pious politicians – more an affirmation of our exceptionalism than a plea for divine mercy or assistance.

            I speak here of what I see as the cultural tendency of Thanksgiving. I freely grant that there may be those who celebrate the day with a genuine thankfulness, a truly Christian devotion. Yet, such a spirit does not characterize the day as a cultural phenomenon. Outside such truly Christian gatherings, Thanksgiving becomes a vague celebration of family or simply a day to eat turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

            Here one might object that, if I admit the possibility of a genuinely Christian Thanksgiving, why do I not just celebrate it in that spirit? Why go so far as not to celebrate it at all? To which I might respond, why do I need to celebrate it at all? After all, as a Catholic, I celebrate Thanksgiving every time I assist at Mass – for eucharist means thanksgiving. Indeed, for the Church, every day is Thanksgiving, for every day has a Eucharist. To which an imaginary disputant might respond – “I grant you this. However, every Mass is a commemoration of Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. By your argument, therefore, we need not celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and the Feast of the Ascension. But,surely, you do not indulge in such pedantic whimsies.

            “Moreover,” my interlocutor might continue, “even if Thanksgiving is what you say it is, what of it? Has not the Church always baptized what is salvageable from even pagan cultures, giving times, seasons, and practices a new, Christian meaning? Thanksgiving, at least, has roots that are Protestant. If pagan practices can be catholicized, why not a Christian, albeit Protestant, practice?”

            I must admit the force of such objections. And, I shall go so far as to say — if it is any consolation to my imaginary friend, I am not doctrinaire on the subject of celebrating Thanksgiving. If circumstances demand it, in future years my family shall probably host or join in a Thanksgiving dinner. This year might prove only an isolated reprieve from a practice I have observed all of my life.

            Yet, I shall offer two responses to my disputant’s objections. First, to the second objection –

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

            It is certainly true that the Church has “baptized” times and seasons hallowed by pagans. One thinks here of the Winter Solstice, the pagan Yule, nigh which the Church placed Christmas. The feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, too, we celebrate near the Summer Solstice. Yet, though such times held significance for pagans, what marks our Catholic feasts is a new fundamental orientation. Near the time when men have  celebrated the beginning of the triumph of physical light over darkness, Christmas recalls the triumph of truth over error and justice over sin. We remember the Baptist, too, at the time when the day begins its waning; for, like the duration of the solar day thenceforth, he had to decrease as Christ increased. Moreover, on such a feast, the liturgy is not merely tacked on to an otherwise pagan celebration but has become the source of the day’s very meaning– even given the vestiges of pagan customs (such as the bonfires on St. John’s Day) that continued to mark the day’s festivities. In other words, if it was once a pagan festival, it is so no more; it is Christian. Christmas is not Yule cum the celebration of Mass; it is the celebration of the birth of Christ to which Yule gave way and by which some of Yule’s symbols were transformed. Christmas and similar feasts mark the conquest of Christ over the gods, of the Faith over pagan error.

            The same cannot be said for Thanksgiving. Though Mass is said, it is a mere optional appendage to the day. The feasting of the day does not emanate from the liturgy or take its meaning from it. The thanks we give, if we give thanks at all, is not a continuing of eucharistia. Thanksgiving remains, at best, a Puritan commemoration of the harvest where God is thanked, indeed, but not in a way uniquely Catholic; or it is some vague celebration of family togetherness. At worst, it is only a civic holiday when we eat, drink, and watch football, and God is barely called to mind at all.

            As such, Thanksgiving is not an example of a distillation of a sentiment that informs all Catholic worship –which is my response to the first objection. It is not a day which the Church has set aside to remember God’s blessings and arouse gratitude. Unlike Christmas, which the secular world has taken from us, it is not even a fundamentally Catholic thing that the “world” had coöpted. If anything, it is a Protestant day that our national culture has transformed and gutted of its meaning. We Catholics observe the day, but we have not made it distinctly our own. Instead, our celebration of Thanksgiving is a sign that the culture has made us its own.

            For us American Catholics, Thanksgiving looms larger and is treated by us more significantly than our own ecclesiastical feasts and celebrations. Yes, we celebrate Christmas and Easter; but, notice: these are days commemorated by the larger culture as well. When it comes to the feasts which the culture ignores – Epiphany, for instance, or Pentecost, or the Ascension, or All Saints or the Assumption or the Nativity of John the Baptist – we basically ignore them too. We do not emphasize these days with the same spirit and gusto as we do Thanksgiving. We remember them only in Mass. These were days that, in Catholic culture, were commemorated with feasting, drinking, and congruous customs, most of which have been entirely lost to us. For us, the feasts begin and end with liturgical rites enacted in a brief hour, and then are soon forgotten.

            Even our commemoration of Christmas follows the patterns of American society. Advent, the season of preparation, lives on only in the liturgy and an occasional family candle wreath; the day after Thanksgiving begins the Christmas season, even in Catholic households. How many Catholics decorate Christmas trees and trim their houses with Christmas in the weeks prior to Christmas? How many Catholic institutions and families throw Christmas parties in Advent? Such an anticipation of the feast makes sense according to the logic of commerce, which pimps the “Christmas spirit” to seduce us to buy; but it is meaningless in light of the liturgical drama that finds its climax in the Incarnation. In fact, it destroys the drama and renders Christmas, when it comes, anticlimactic. Celebrating Christmas before Christmas is like making love before marriage: a tawdry consumption rather than a long awaited consummation.

            In our shipwreck, we American Catholics cling to the flotsam and jetsam of Catholic culture. We have become what George Santayana reportedly called us over a hundred years ago: Protestants who say the rosary. Only it is worse, for we follow the cultural patterns of a society that has become post-Protestant, whose guiding principles are consumption and profit, and whose god is Mammon. We do not leaven the society, it leavens us. In our cultural life, we are more consumer than Catholic, for we follow the patterns of life set by commerce, not Christ. 

            To break such habits sometimes calls for a radical departure from the well-beaten paths that invite to lethargy. Eating turkey and watching football on the fourth Thursday of November is in itself morally indifferent. But it involves moral agents acting in a moral context.  If we make the resolve to transfer our Thanksgiving to, say, All Saints (or the closest Sunday thereto) or Christ the King; if we reinvigorate our great feasts such that they become truly festivals emanating from the heart of the liturgy, like rays from the sun, we might begin to reintegrate ourselves in the culture of the Church and renew our understanding of what it means to be fully Catholic.