Merry Christmas! And it’s only mid-November. Or right after Halloween. Or maybe even mid-July. Sound familiar? This is the American commercial tradition, classifying and celebrating the season of late fall to early winter as the ‘holiday season’, but we really just mean Christmas for the most part. After all, we look forward to ending the year with that merry time of peace on earth and good will to all, which for Christians is just fine, so long as baby Jesus gets to stay in his manger on the church lawn without the secularists filing lawsuits. Almost any tension can be reconciled, in some form or another, in this happy time.
Meanwhile, the other major holiday of the season (before the New Year and besides ethnic holidays like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah) only gets remembered in the brief span of a week or two before it actually arrives. In that space, we think of turkeys and joyous/awkward family get-togethers where we stuff ourselves with magnificent feasts before rushing madly to the store for Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving afternoon. Not even the holiday itself is free from the looming lights and gifts, from thinking of what comes next instead of what is already here.
This is nothing new. After all, it’s difficult to give thanks when so much misery falls on us in the world, like being stuck with last year’s gadget. Or, more seriously, our lives could have been ruined by hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, and disintegrating health care laws. It’s also hard to get into the spirit of a holiday, beyond food and family, when the mythical side of it involves a group of Protestant white Europeans that over three centuries ago celebrated safely arriving to a wilderness continent, feasting for days with a group of Native Americans. Santa just seems more inviting than such distant history, which might not have happened anyway.
However, there is more to it than just the Pilgrims. After all, the actual holiday was not instituted until the time of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, like many of the Revolutionary Fathers (including Washington), often proclaimed that the nation should pray for God’s blessing. In Lincoln’s time, he encouraged prayer specifically for the endeavor to reunite the country and to thank God for the blessings He was giving in the midst of the sufferings, and even to ask His forgiveness for the sins that incurred the scourge of bloody war. Such language is totally foreign to a modern society that largely disapproves of being asked to participate in religious ceremony, unless they are allowed to follow whatever ceremony they choose.
While Lincoln certainly wasn’t one to compel a sectarian understanding of his holiday, he was expressing a generally Christian one. In the first proclamation (on August 12, 1861) among several that led to the official Thanksgiving, he declared:
…it is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to His chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offences, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action…
All of which an average American living in 2013 will not readily believe. The idea that our nation celebrates a day to humbly come before God, to ask forgiveness of sin and recognize His superiority, would strike the casual observer as the most radical, fundamentalist, right-wing distortion of American culture.
That’s why we have turkeys and food, so that the giving of thanks turns into a general good will, spread among our loved ones, rather than the uncomfortable religious intentions of its founder, Lincoln. The spiritual overtone to Christmas is much easier to forget when the holiday results in receiving new possessions rather than striking a pose of contentment with what we already have. The focus of Thanksgiving may not be wholly stripped of a graceful posture, but it does seem particularly dimmed when Yuletide themed ads roll out the beginning of November, and Black Friday gobbles up more and more, until it doesn’t seem far-fetched if we just skip the formality altogether and end up with a Black Thursday.
More importantly, Thanksgiving was intended to bring people together, and our divisive self-minded culture is not inclined to find reasons, much less religious ones, for reconciling with fellow Americans, beyond the family. On October 3, 1863 Lincoln gave another proclamation wherein, speaking about similar objects of gratitude, he says, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” He saw the holiday as a means to unify the people, one of his greater goals during the fractious war he navigated, but that need sounds hollow to the 21st century Americans who are bitterly divided on race, culture, and politics. The Macy’s parade might bring New Yorkers together, but the spirit of national union is far from Thanksgiving or even the festive ‘peace on earth’ conclusion of the year.
With that in mind, it may be the perfect time for Christians to reclaim Thanksgiving, for themselves and for their secular neighbors, as it was intended. Believers, in their own personal celebration, can remember the godly heritage of their forbears, supplanting the ambiguous reasons behind its holiday traditions. Furthermore, we can remind others that Christmas music shouldn’t start until December 1st, or Black Friday at the earliest. We can also use Thanksgiving to reach out to those whom we might otherwise avoid, because they are pro- this or anti- that, and by so doing begin to heal the cultural scars and pave the way for unbelievers to receive the hopeful message of that baby who comes next on the calendar.