Thursday, November 23, 2006

Praise the Lord and Pass the Mashed Potatoes

As an atheist, I’m ambivalent about Thanksgiving.

On the one hand, no matter how secularly you try to slice it, the feast is clearly meant as a huge suck-up to god. Although we travel long distances to be with our loved ones, we don’t expect them to address their gratitude to us for putting up with them all these years; nor do we act particularly grateful to them. No one says, “I went through all the indignities of airport security just so that I could express appreciation to Cousin Harold.”

Thanksgiving is a national religious holiday, pure and simple, dedicated to doffing one’s cap to the deity. Among the presidents from the founders’ generation, only Jefferson believed that ordering a thanksgiving day would conflict with the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Tradition has made that judgment obsolete. No American president today would dare disagree with Washington’s recommendation that we gather together for a day of “PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER” (the capitals are his, the revulsion mine) “to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of …that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be….” In other words, “we’re glad you’re on our team, big fella. Keep up the good work.”

On the other hand, there’s Thanksgiving in practice. The only one who actually chastens and hastens his—or her—will to make known is the cook. The day is really all about hedonism: way too much food and drink, long hours of real or faked conviviality, occasional emotional outbursts, and, in general, doing whatever has felt good since childhood. As such, it’s a celebration of which even Jefferson, that old sensuous fox, would have approved.