November 22, 2006
Who Will Save Thanksgiving?
This Holy Day is trampled in the Christmas rush.
Wal-Mart announced this week they will return the word "Christmas" to their seasonal greetings. Good move, especially given their faithful hick-hop constituency. No more generic salutations that so many of us carped about last year, when many merchants dropped Christ from his own holy day so as not to offend non-believers.
We still have a way to go. The nearby nursery is advertising "Holiday Trees" and the local school is staging a "Winter Pageant" with small children singing, "We wish you a Merry Sparkle Season!" But before we restart the campaign to reChristianize Christmas, would someone please save Thanksgiving?
I thought we had made some progress a couple of years ago when retailer Macy's repented of renaming their annual streetside festival "The Macy's Day Parade," abandoning thanks altogether. But now, it seems to me the beachhead is slipping. This year the radio station in my city that plays wall-to-wall Christmas music plugged in Rudolph earlier than ever. The station manager saw two snowflakes outside his office window at 10 a.m. on November 2 and by noon had switched the format to 24-hour Christmas tunes. True story. Chalk one up for Santa. And the advertising department.
We're losing Thanksgiving.
I don't mean to sound like Chicken Little (or Turkey Lurkey?), but the one day set aside to contemplate our blessings and their divine origin has, in one generation, been reduced to a football orgy and now, for football widows, a jumpstart on the biggest shopping day of the year as more stores open on the sacred Thursday.
In years past, I have always looked forward to the annual recitation of things we're thankful for, both around my own table and in the public discourse. Chicago Tribune columnist Joan Beck captured it so well with her annual and often alliterative Thanksgiving prayer:
"Our Father's God to Thee, author of Liberty, we thank you for fathers and founding fathers and father figures, for the Internet if we can figure it out and interactive TV if we can manage it, for sundaes and Saturdays and TGIF, for DNA and AZT and CD-ROM, for a port in the storm and a bridge over trouble, for cocoa after caroling and dawn after dark, for healing after hurt and rest after work, and blessed promise of life after life forevermore" (from her 1994 column).
But dear Joan Beck is dead. Santa is seizing November. And Pilgrims, once champions of religious freedom, are being sacrificed as bigots on the altar of political correctness. So who's calling us all to give thanks now?
The pastor of an Atlanta church told us that Thanksgiving was becoming for them the new seeker's holiday. They found that people curious about faith would attend thanks-themed worship services with their believing friends. For seekers, Thanksgiving is a less demanding holiday than Christmas, which requires belief in the improbable (a Virgin birth?), or Easter, with its claims to exclusivity (must Christ be the only Way?). Everyone has something to be thankful for, and most people recognize that something beyond themselves must be credited with their blessings.
A Kansas City church we know holds a day-long prayer vigil at Thanksgiving, inviting people to bring family and friends to the sanctuary to give voice to their gratitude. And they do. In droves.
And there are the congregations in every city where families skip their own dinners to serve the hungry and homeless in packed-out fellowship halls.
But are these exceptions in a thankless society? In times of disaster or famine or war, people are more likely to turn their searching faces heavenward. As we mop up after disasters, however, and as war (God forbid) becomes routine, will people respond to the call to thanks? The Civil War was two years old when Abraham Lincoln issued his national call for a Thanksgiving day. His admonition still applies:
"The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
"In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. …
"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. …
"I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."
If thanks could help save the Union, can we now save the holiday it inspired?