As we Americans sit down this evening to a meal purposefully conceived to subsume our every gastronomic need and inhibition, we should take a moment to ponder what has become an empty ceremony.
Think of the contradictions. We're celebrating abundance in an Age of Abundance. Collecting family to commemorate pioneers who left their families in search of new lives. Without any official liturgy or canon, we give thanks broadly for our general well-being.
The idea of a celebration like this isn't odd. Ceremonial dinners are a mainstay of most world religions, harvests, and national charters. The UK's Queen Elizabeth had a 'day of thanksgiving' earlier this week in celebration of her birthday.
Our gig is loosely based on an event back in 1621, whereat the Pilgrims in North America celebrated their haphazard survival with a few days of praying, followed by a meal. Wampanoag King Massasoit and a load of his tribesmen came to the party, bringing the deer to complement the colonists' harvested peas and wild fowl.
End of story.
The colonists and Indians went back to alternately trading, cheating, and killing one another for the next century or so. There were occasional thanksgivings (small t) declared for various events along the way -- usually involving the settlers' avoidance of starvation or scalping -- and, in the mid-1700s, we started celebrating trading, cheating, and killing the British, like with a thanksgiving in 1777 for winning the Battle of Saratoga. After President Washington was inaugurated in 1789, he decided the entire country should give thanks for that, too.
But there was never an annual thanksgiving meal (capital T). It wasn't even a consideration until a successful entrepreneur, women's suffragette, and magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale spent a few decades of the early 1800s lobbying for it.
Hale was very active in civic causes, and as an interesting aside, penned the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." She led one of history's first recorded special interest group efforts, tirelessly writing letters to any politician who could read.
Enter President Lincoln. It's 1863, and the Civil War is at its bleakest for the Union. Everyone is scared and depressed, and Lincoln is casting about for a way to get folks thinking about what is good in their lives (and not the rebel troops threateningly encamped across the Potomac). A national day of thanksgiving fits the bill perfectly, so he makes it official. His proclamation references the natural bounty of America to promote his imagined strength of the Union.
Thanksgiving wasn't intended as a celebration of guys in funny, broad-brimmed hats and shoes with big buckles on them. Lincoln had a specific intent in mind: he wanted everyone to give thanks for what they presently possessed, not for the past.
It was brilliant branding.
Subsequent presidents liked the idea and continued to proclaim annual days of thanksgiving, usually adding their own political messages into the gigs. Franklin Roosevelt tried to move it up a week in order to get Depression-era shoppers to behave differently and start shopping earlier (it failed). Congress sanctioned Thanksgiving as a legal holiday in 1941, as the days were bleak due to the Nazis conquering Europe. The Japanese were within two months of bombing Pearl Harbor.
By the time we get to tonight's meal, we're left with a contradiction: for what are we giving thanks? We stuff ourselves silly with food, watch football games, and otherwise appreciate getting time off from school or work. Hurrah!
Thanksgiving is an unrealized marketing opportunity.
Forget that first dinner in the 17th Century. Thanksgiving has never been about history...Independence Day celebrates the past. Thanksgiving is about how we-of-the-here-and-now look at ourselves, and how we look toward our future.
So why doesn't the President step up and really make something of it? How about announcing that today is dedicated to the soldiers in Iraq or, more broadly, the cause of freedom around the world? Skip the ceremonial Turkey on the front lawn of the White House, and instead challenge every American to do something. What? I don't know. Write a letter to a solider. Reach out and help someone in need. Make it something more than words in a press release that nobody will read.
What about a Green Thanksgiving, on which we could be asked to turn off our lights for an hour in order to help combat global warming? Imagine the energy savings inherent in those 60 minutes! Or how about declaring a Bridge the Divide Thanksgiving, at which each family invites a family from "across the aisle" (politically, religiously, whatever) and shares their dinner?
We live in times no less challenging or scary than those of the Depression, Lincoln's divided America, or the rough hewn days and nights in Plymouth Colony.
Thanksgivings have always been celebrated with a specific, current, and relevant purpose. I think we need to be challenged to come together, in our country, and with the world. Some enterprising politician who expects to win next year's Presidential election should be thinking through this marketing opportunity.
Thanksgiving is a holiday in need of a sponsor.