Thanksgiving? No Thanks

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The Anti-Independence Day

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

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Yesterday was the feast day of St. Cecilia, the virgin and martyr who died at the hands of the Romans 1,800 years ago. For the crime of being a Christian, she was beheaded, and has been venerated as the patron saint of music by both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches ever since.

Unfortunately in America, this feast in honor of an ancient martyr who gave her life as a witness to God was mostly ignored in favor of the quasi-religious holiday created by politicians known as "Thanksgiving." During this holiday, people mostly watch football and stuff their faces with turkey while possibly taking a minute to pay lip service to the bland little American god that is more of a political prop than a deity.

This is the god of "God Bless America," and of the Pledge of Allegiance, and of the legions of red-faced American nationalists who can’t tell the difference between a religion and a political party.

To drive home the semi-religious, but fully nationalistic nature of this holiday, we were recently granted right-wing columnist Joseph Farah’s latest paean to the American state which takes the rather silly position that there is a "War on Thanksgiving." Farah is apparently taking his marching orders from Michelle Malkin who also recently declared war on the War on Thanksgiving. But while Malkin merely has a problem with some tacky multiculturalism attached to the holiday, Farah inadvertently reveals the political usefulness of Thanksgiving in its religious posturing.

An attack on Thanksgiving, Farah tells us, is an attack on God. Thanksgiving, that holiday made up by politicians as yet another day of national unity, is now a sacred day. Farah equates the Pilgrims (who declared a state-sponsored day of thanksgiving of their own) to the ancient Hebrews, and then equates all American thanksgiving days since to the religious feasts of thanksgiving practiced by the Hebrews.

Farah apparently suffers from the same confusion as the Pilgrims in his being unable to tell the difference between 17th Century North America and 10th century (B.C.) Israel. But at the core of Farah’s assertions is a deep, deep attachment to a nationalist myth that posits the United States as a sacred nation. Thanksgiving thus serves an immensely useful purpose as a day of national unity and national self-congratulation.

In many ways, in fact, Thanksgiving has eclipsed Independence Day as the national holiday. While Independence Day, at least in theory, commemorates an act of political disloyalty and disunion, Thanksgiving, with its modern roots in the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, is about unity, national "pride" and complacency. Be thankful, or else. And don’t complain like those Revolutionaries did.

In little more than a century, Thanksgiving rose from being one of Lincoln’s political gimmicks to the point where it now surpasses numerous religious holidays and all national holidays as a major event in the lives of Americans.

It may be the proximity to Christmas, but whatever the reason, the commercial and cultural importance of Thanksgiving has surpassed Independence Day. The 4th of July now takes a back seat to the guaranteed four-day weekend of shopping, football, and travel that now kicks off the “holiday season.”

Thanksgiving’s status as a universal national holiday is significant because at its root, Thanksgiving is a day that commemorates an American creation myth.

For centuries, but especially since nationalism began to sweep the Western world in the 19th century, every national state has sought for itself a creation myth out of which comes a common history, ideology, or (sometimes) common ethnic bond. Most of them have always been made up, since real history is far too complicated to fit neatly into the little stories told to school children. And they are always commemorated by some secular national holiday.

A good nationalist myth always conveys a few central pieces of information. It tells us that at some point in time (the earlier the better), "our" ancestors arrived at the place we are now and staked a claim to this physical territory. It tells us that we all have a common history and experience that can be traced back to these original ancestors. It tells us that we, being united by that common history, should also be politically and perpetually united. And finally, it tells us that God Almighty was and is in favor of the whole enterprise.

These myths were essential to the rise of nationalism then and now, for they are designed to discourage dissent and to unite the population behind a central government. Before the acceptance of the myth, local populations might have been united behind local ethnicities and political agendas instead, and such local concerns might have led to suspicion of the central government and its ever-increasing power. But a population that accepts myths and legends about an alleged national "experience" or "bond" or "character" is much easier to control.

This is hardly just an American phenomenon. The Eastern Europeans of the 19th century became particularly adept at making up heroic histories for themselves when it came time to unite the locals into national states, and the Latin Americans have been skilled at this game as well.

The modern Thanksgiving, the product of non-believer Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation, is explicitly a day of national unity. It was a chance for Lincoln to declare during the Civil War that God was on the North’s side and that all decent Americans should pray and thank God that the war (which the proclamation hints is all the South’s fault) had not destroyed the Northern economy.

In the decades since, Thanksgiving has done an excellent job of not only providing a highly anticipated and much-revered national festival, but has provided the much-needed veneer of religiosity that any good feast day of national mythology requires.

Thus the iconography of Thanksgiving has traditionally centered on the devout Pilgrims, emerging from the sea, and pressing their way into the wilderness while planting the common values of Christianity and America in a new land. The traditional Thanksgiving dinner is a re-enactment of that alleged first Thanksgiving of 1621 at the Plymouth Colony. Emphasis is often on how the Pilgrims were escaping religious persecution in England and how they were therefore good proto-Americans who valued religious freedom, private property, truth, justice, and so on.

This version of history, which is now in decline, is problematic to say the least, and it’s almost purely the product of the Northern bias that so dominated American cultural and intellectual elite circles following the end of the Civil War. The Pilgrim Myth completely ignores the "day of thanksgiving" celebrated in December of 1619 in Virginia, and it also shifts the origins of Anglo-Saxon settlement from its true center in Virginia to the rather isolated and less prosperous (and less free) colony in the north.

If one is looking for a national origin myth, one would think that the Jamestown settlement, which pre-dates the Plymouth Colony by more than a dozen years, would be a more logical place to start. It was in Virginia, after all, where English liberties and religious freedom took root while Plymouth Colony was becoming less tolerant and therefore less prosperous as the 17th century wore on. Religious freedom certainly had no home in Plymouth until the original settlers were finally displaced by a new generation of immigrants.

And of course, everything else that happened in North America outside Plymouth is ignored in the traditional story. There were the Spanish settlers who brought Christianity to what is now Florida almost 40 years before any English settlers showed up. And then, as the Jamestown settlers were trying to avoid another repeat of the Roanoke colony in 1607, the Spaniards were busy founding Santa Fe and driving into the North American heartland, setting up trade routes like the Sante Fe Trail, and converting the natives to Christianity. Over two hundred years later, the Americans would finally show up and benefit from centuries of Spanish trade and law in the region.

Multiculturalist opposition to the Pilgrim Myth has somewhat damaged its relevance in recent years, but Thanksgiving itself remains unscathed. Indeed, Thanksgiving has become so successful as a national holiday, that it has relegated all the other nationalist, secular holidays to a second tier. Only the explicitly religious holiday of Christmas is a bigger deal, but that naturally excludes non-Christians, so Thanksgiving becomes a catch-all holiday to which every knee shall bend.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Thanksgiving isn’t about God or giving Him thanks. Indeed, it is really rather sad that some people practice a version of Christianity so stripped down and impoverished that they need to get worked up about national holidays invented by 19th century atheist politicians like Abraham Lincoln.

Real religious holy days involve the veneration of saints and martyrs and prophets, and of ancient universal truths. Nationalist holidays like Thanksgiving are by definition opposed to the universal and the eternal, and instead of focusing on the deeds of defenseless martyrs like Saint Cecilia, they instead focus on the deeds of politicians and governments and on historical myths. Built on bad history and on worse religion, the rise of Thanksgiving is a fascinating case study in American history. But in the end, Thanksgiving is now and always has been an exercise in nationalism and watered down religion that has precious little to do with liberty, God, or even an accurate re-telling of American history.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.

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