In Praise of Thanksgiving
By: By MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY
J ohn Adams thought that his Thanksgiving proclamation cost him reelection. Or at least that’s what he told Benjamin Rush in an 1812 letter. During his term in office, Adams had asked that Americans mark Thursday April 25 “as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” He wanted the American people to give thanks to God for “the countless favors which He is still continuing to the people of the United States, and which render their condition as a nation eminently happy when compared with the lot of others.”
You might be thinking: Why would this mark him for electoral disaster? Presidents now announce their forthcoming attempts to subvert Congress with a pen and a phone, or join the nation to semi-treaties, or declare war with a Declaration of War. Why in the world would the use of the 18th-century presidential bully-quill be such a misstep?
Well . . . it made him look like a Presbyterian. Adams said that Presbyterians had “allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Sweedenborgians, Methodist, Catholicks, Protestant Episcopalians, Arians Socinians, Arminians . . .” and that “a general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church . . . aimed at an Establishment as a National Church.” All that fasting and thanksgiving on a marked day. Mighty suspicious. Then as now, high and mighty New Englanders telling the country what to do could end up provoking the wrath of the public.
Americans no longer pair the day of thanks with solemn fasting. Quite the opposite. Thanksgiving traditions now include posting videos of your turkey “Moistmaker” sandwiche s to Instagram.
But we still give thanks. And I’m thankful for all the giving of thanks. “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude,” said G. K. Chesterton, the notably rotund journalist and non-Presbyterian.
In this season of life, Thanksgiving seems to come in a rush. The Daylight Savings freaks have pushed their clock-fiddling past Halloween. And so we’re only just accustomed to the darkness of evening.
In my neighborhood, the trees unburden almost half their leaves in one great drop at the end of November. The brilliant color of fall is just stripped away. The riot of fall’s oranges, siennas, and flaxen melts into nothing. And I begin my attempt to hold back the colors and sounds of Christmas that are bursting out of our local Target.
Every year, I’m grateful for my mother, who shuffled off the mortal coil almost a decade ago. She took over the laborious Thanksgiving meal from her mother in the last decade of her life, and I learned to make a delicious roast turkey from her. I try to go to the same massive Stew Leonard’s in Danbury, Conn., where she bought the large, thick stalks of rosemary she used. If we want leftover turkey, we have to cook more of it than a family can possibly eat in one night. I wish she could see what I’m doing with turkey stock in the lead-up to the big day.
And this year, I’ll be grateful for my extended family, and how we all eventually figured out how to support each other through the uncertainties and insanities of pandemic life.
I’ve figured out that there is a particular moment when all the gratitude usually rushes in on me. The actual hustle of the holiday tends to crowd out anything like Adams’s “solemnity.” Until, at some point in the evening, or late at night, I have to take the dog out for a walk. I usually go without a jacket. But it is there, in the stillness of the cold and dark, that I grow overwhelmed with the superabundance of blessings in this life. All the natural comforts of spring and summer have been stripped away. And yet, the belly and heart are full. This simple ritual of being with your people for a feast, at the start of a long weekend, is a foretaste of heaven itself. Even if you’re a Presbyterian Sweedenborgian or a Catholick like me: Savor it.