Thursday, November 24, 2011

Skeptical Gratitude

     The American holiday of Thanksgiving is an example of a useful tradition. Somehow, and perhaps more than with Christmas, the original purpose of the holiday seems to have survived. While many American children firmly believe the purpose of Christmas is solely to get presents (and too many American parents over-endorse that belief), one can still hear the ritualistic question every November, “What do you have to be thankful for?” If this impression is accurate, then the reason appears to be the differing religious content of the two holidays. The Santa Claus myth, transmuted by commercialism into a fully materialist celebration, has neatly replaced the older celebration of the birth of the Christian savior. Anti-Christian media have systematically endorsed this shift, funded as they are by advertising. Skeptical conservatives are no doubt ambivalent about it all, since whatever advance there may be in loosening the old theology is partly and disappointingly balanced by the new theology—materialist consumerism. As for Thanksgiving, though, the original feast (or at least the legend of the feast, which is what we commemorate) was about gratitude for a worldly bounty. After a 66-day sea voyage, a winter of sickness and death, the colonists finally managed a robust harvest in the fall of 1621. Worldly bounty fits rather well into the current paradigm of values. For that matter, the fact that Squanto knew more about how to survive in America than the colonists sounds a bell for multiculturalism as well. So, there is no real difficulty maintaining the forms of the original feast.

     Except, a purist (or a curmudgeon) would point out some differences. First, the Plymouth colonists were coming off a year of genuine hardship. Fifty percent of them perished the first winter. Apart from some few survivors of decimated military units in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, no American alive has experienced anything like that rough an existence. Our recent economic woes have been a tepid crucible—for which we should be thoroughly thankful. All this means, though, is that the Plymouth colonists in some sense earned their celebration in a way more profound than we can probably grasp. Another difference has to do with comparing the scale of their cornucopia with our consumerist lifestyle. Where they suffered more than we, we enjoy material benefits beyond their experience or imagination. No one alive in 1621 could have imagined a life as pleasant and materially rich as the lifestyle of the average American today. It is a mixed blessing for us, since our material wealth, comfort, and ease of life seem to have worked more to erode our individual strengths than to make us happy. Indeed, it is astonishing how many people are unhappy in the midst of our almost obscene plenty. Still, we ought to acknowledge our wealth and be grateful for it, even though its ubiquity naturally dulls our appreciation.

     Apart from the depth of the colonists’ hardships, and the splendor of our wealth, another difference between our holiday and their first feast does bring us back to religion. For if the point of the first feast was gratitude for bounty, it was clear in the minds of the colonists that their God had provided that bounty. Indeed, many or even most of them had undertaken the voyage in search of religious liberty. They had sought freedom from an established Church, and they crossed an ocean to find it. Perhaps ironically, their near descendants shortly became intolerant of non-Puritan faiths, but the original motive of the original colonists remained as intellectual capital on which their more distant descendants would eventually draw. Ironically, American skeptics of today owe an intellectual and political debt to our Pilgrim Fathers. In remembering where to acknowledge our gratitude today, let us not forget them.

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