I like the idea of Thanksgiving — a day for counting one’s blessings, giving thanks, and hanging out with friends and family. Reality is more problematic, as reality invariably is. Notice how, in the run-up to the holiday, news outlets and blogs are full of advice on how to get through a meal with relatives you can’t stand, especially relatives with deplorable politics they can’t shut up about.
This year I’m grateful that I’m still hale, hearty (hardy), (self-)employed, reasonably sentient, and trying to figure out what to do with my life.
Still, it’s hard not to be uneasy about the mythology behind the U.S. Thanksgiving, the story about generous Native peoples and grateful Anglos that most of us in the U.S. have grown up with. The mythology becomes more awful the more one knows about the history, which of course is why those who cling hardest to the mythology are the ones dead set against accurate teaching of the history.
Can Thanksgiving be demythologized? History is a powerful disinfectant. Historian Heather Cox Richardson traces the holiday as we know it to early in the Civil War, when things were not going so well for the North. She writes: “The Pilgrims and the Wampanoags did indeed share a harvest celebration together at Plymouth in fall 1621, but that moment got forgotten almost immediately, overwritten by the long history of the settlers’ attacks on their Indigenous neighbors.”
She continues: “The early years of the war did not go well for the U.S. By the end of 1862, the armies still held, but people on the home front were losing faith. Leaders recognized the need both to acknowledge the suffering and to keep Americans loyal to the cause. In November and December, seventeen state governors declared state thanksgiving holidays.” You can read the whole thing here, and please do yourself a favor: subscribe to HCR’s Substack if you don’t already. It’s helped me survive the last few years.
Which brings me round to Tom Nichols’s piece in the Nov. 22 Atlantic Daily: “Giving Thanks for What We’ve Averted.” As he puts it, “This is the thankfulness not for the warm hearth or full belly, but the visceral sense of relief, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, that comes from being shot at and missed.” His list:
- “The economy has not collapsed,” despite the whammy dealt to it by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Inflation and gas prices may be higher than usual, he writes, but “we are nowhere near the economic conditions of even the 1970s, much less the 1930s.”
- The pandemic itself was “blunted by vaccines in a year” — a tribute to scientific know-how and the ability to get the vaccine to many millions of people, in spite of the denial and ineptitude of the White House and the conspiratorial nuttiness rampant in so many Republican-run states.
- “We are not living under an authoritarian government.” With each passing day we learn more about how close we came, but Nichols summarizes it well: “Only two years ago, our president was an unhinged sociopath who had just lost an election. He was getting briefed by retired generals and a pillow magnate about crackpot schemes to declare martial law and seize voting machines. After his defeat, he would call on his followers to protest his loss—and the American nation, for the first time in its history, failed the test of the peaceful transfer of power.”
- “Finally, we are not living through World War III. This might seem obvious, but that is because we have simply become accustomed to the shocking fact that a major war is raging in Europe. Think about that for a moment. A nuclear-armed dictatorship is trying to rewrite history and threatening the peace of the entire planet.” Along with everything else, let’s give thanks for the courage and determination of the Ukrainians, and keep supporting them as they fight for all of us.
Tom Nichols concludes: “Yet America survives, and even thrives. We shouldn’t spend all of our days thinking about disaster, but it makes us better people (and better citizens) if we stop for a moment and realize that we should celebrate not only what we have gained, but also what we have—so far—been spared.”
And I add: 2016 and the years since woke a lot of USians up, even those of us who shed our rose-colored glasses decades ago. As the Ukrainians, and many others around the world, have risen to the occasion, many of us have too. The 2018 midterms, the 2000 general election, and the 2022 midterms testify to the effect that “we the people” have had on so many fronts, some public and many not.
The other day I read that Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) had compared voting to a prayer. I was already thinking of the postcards I write (currently for Rev. Warnock in his Dec. 6 runoff election) and the other small things I do to support candidates and strengthen democracy, justice, and equity as a sort of prayer. Today I’m also thinking of them as a way of giving thanks — for all the work and sacrifice of my predecessors who have enabled me to reach this place, and for all those on the front lines, the Ukrainians, yes, but also all of us who are raising our voices to shore up democracy and guarantee peace, justice, and equity to all.