Attitudes on Gratitude Part I: Different Harvests

Bizarro - Thanksgiving Horror from smiteme (CC BY-NC-ND)

Bizarro – Thanksgiving Horror from smiteme (CC BY-NC-ND)

Thanksgiving comes to us out of the prehistoric dimness, universal to all ages and all faiths. ―J. Robert Moskin
I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land. ―Jon Stewart
I like football. I find its an exciting strategic game. Its a great way to avoid conversation with your family at Thanksgiving. ―Craig Ferguson
From Thanksgiving until New Year’s Sarah was a Christian by proxy. ―Dahlia Schweitzer
Here in Britain, of course, it’s Thank Fuck We Got Those Weird Jesus Bastards On The Boat Day. ―Warren Ellis


From the ancient Japanese Niiname-sai and the Igbo Onwasato Festival in Nigeria to the Anglo-Saxon/neo-pagan Lammas and Jewish Sukkot, harvest festivals span the globe, the seasons, and recorded history. In the U.S.—though most Americans reap food from markets and can’t tell a scythe from a sickle—we celebrate Thanksgiving.

America’s apocryphal Thanksgiving story begins with a pilgrim harvest celebration in Plymouth. Thanksgiving history is actually murkier and predates the romanticized 1621 New England feast. Like other mainstreamed holidays in our melting pot world, whitewashed traditions provoke some legitimate grievances.

For example, the “original” Thanksgiving coincided with an era of genocide.

Many indigenous people and supporters observe a National Day of Mourning or similar Unthanksgiving Day to counter the “cultural and political amnesia” (Prof Dan Brook) of European conquest and massacre. Some advocate a day of remembrance and atonement instead of celebration. However, as thanks-giving festivals are actually ancient traditions in many cultures—including indigenous ones—others encourage celebrating it without regard for the popular Plymouth story.

Reappropriating Thanksgiving is a tradition of its own. During the Great Depression, FDR moved the holiday back, hoping an extra week of Christmas shopping would boost the economy. Today a growing minority of people counter Black Friday’s mad sales with Buy Nothing Day, a formalized stand against unnecessary consumption.

Speaking of billion dollar industries, in the history of the NFL there has never been a Thanksgiving day without football. Many holiday gatherings greet new arrivals with distracted hellos between curses, cheering, and commercial breaks. When you look forward to seeing family and friends at Thanksgiving, the shouts of football fans just underscores their absence. Yet for many people games are a welcome relief from holiday stress. After all, most Americans aren’t celebrating the harvest—they’re navigating a season of heightened expectation and strain.

Ancient festivals, however, were harvest celebrations. Specifically, they were expressions of gratitude to benevolent gods for granting the year’s harvest. From a religious perspective little has changed. The President of the United States now issues an annual Thanksgiving Proclamation that can only gall atheists. On 3 October 1789, President George Washington kicked off the tradition by announcing:

[T]o acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor . . . . I do recommend and assign [November 26th] to be devoted . . . to the service of that great and glorious Being . . . rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks [for the many] favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us.

Whoa! What happened to the separation of church and state? Religious freedom was many pilgrims’ motivation for leaving Europe. The body of religious oppression wasn’t even cold before Washington started preaching stateside. While modern Thanksgivings are largely secular—excepting maybe football worship—even saying grace can disconcert people of different beliefs.

Fortunately there are plenty of deserving and tangible forces at work: sun and soil, farmers and rain, packers and truckers, markets, shoppers, baggers, cooks, servers, and more. We often overlook the labor our nourishment requires; Thanksgiving is a perfect time to remember and express gratitude for those who provide it.

What do you think?