Thanksgiving puzzles me. I thought I knew what it meant, but my emotional assuredness has been increasingly challenged by the assertion that Thanksgiving is our most important holiday because it is a secular one. Everybody, it is said, can comfortably celebrate Thanksgiving.
It is interesting that the words importance and secular are paired. Importance most assuredly stands apart from secular. It is however, clear that Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday also made it a secular one. Our constitutional separation of church and state certainly means the State cannot proclaim a religious holiday.
History records the first Thanksgiving celebrations being started by the Pilgrims who inclusively reached out to Native Americans and offered blessings to God. Sarah Josepha Hale, the Editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which enjoyed the highest circulation of any periodical, had promoted a day of Thanksgiving writing, “[It] is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.”
I know that Thanksgiving in the Sikes household has long been centered on thanks giving as we directly and indirectly celebrated a transcendent power, not our own. But, enough with history and theology. I suspect we can all agree that Thanksgiving is indeed about giving thanks. I hope in this age of Selfies we pause to recognize more than ourselves.
Several days ago I was talking to a Hispanic friend, a newly minted citizen of the United States. She told me she was looking forward to preparing Thanksgiving Dinner and proudly proclaimed the main course would be a roasted turkey. A small moment for sure, but also a profound one.
Sarah Josepha Hale believed that Thanksgiving dishes, indeed common dishes, would help bring us together. At the time of President Lincoln’s proclamation, the Civil War raged. Lincoln called on Americans to celebrate “with one heart and one voice.”
I suspect that for many of us Thanksgiving is an expression of the great commandment, to love our neighbor as our self–to give thanks, to be gracious. So, let me end with several thoughts about the 2016 edition of our national holiday.
Every four years we celebrate Thanksgiving several weeks after an election. This year the election followed a raucous and often tawdry campaign that amplified differences. The President-elect was frequently the leading edge of the spear. There were, to be sure, many who welcomed the chance to respond with equally sharp and often degrading rhetoric.
As we move toward withdrawing the “elect” from the word President, we should also move away from ad hominem politics. To attack is the antithesis of thanks giving, regardless of who “casts the first stone.” And, we should all strive and particularly in the Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas seasons to more fully understand our blessings and the responsibility of blessings.
This year I am thankful that men and women who come from different culinary traditions join in the American tradition. Strength derived through unity is actually the motto on the Presidential Seal (soon to be used by the President-elect): E pluribus unum—out of many one.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.