This year our traditional Thanksgiving coincides with the first day of Chanukah. It is a rare event when the Julian and Hebrew calendars coincide. It will come again in 2070 or so, and then not for a very long time. Not only do the two holidays coincide, but share common roots. Both are celebrations of thanks for the gifts we have had bestowed upon us. The Jewish tradition celebrates a miracle that occurred when the ancient Temple was repatriated, and its rescuers wanted to rekindle the Eternal light. Only a day’s worth of oil remained, so a party was sent to obtain a fresh supply some days away.
Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, after which the party returned and the lamp could be replenished on a daily basis. Today it is celebrated by lighting candles for eight nights, adding a candle each night. It is also a time for giving gifts; some give something every night. Most years Chanukah comes closer in the calendar to Christmas, and the commercialism of that once holy season becomes ecumenical and affects Jews and Christians alike. The meaning of these holidays has become seriously diminished by the commercialism.
Thanksgiving is, as its name signifies, a day for acknowledging the gifts we have received. The origins of our Thanksgiving arose in the very earliest days of the first settlements in The New World when life was harsh and uncertain. Almost half of the original settlers in Massachusetts died within the first year. At its roots the Day celebrated the sustaining of life, explicitly appreciated by those that survived. The so-called First Celebration took place in 1621, following a plentiful harvest. The local Native Americans, the Wampanoags, had taught the settlers in Plimoth the art of growing crops in this foreign soil and shared in the celebrations.
Their role is important as their culture placed humans in the same interconnected network of life as the animals. They culture was deeply communal with sharing of resources as the norm. As the Indians were systematically wiped out by the European settlers, these beliefs and norms were substantially lost, replaced by the idea of private property and the separation of humans from the web of life. The long-lived native culture which had survived for several thousands of years, at least, virtually entirely disappeared.
What a great loss! Our present unsustainable life styles can be attributed in part to our acquisitiveness for (private) property as a measure of our identity/worth, and the substitution of individualism for communitarianism. In the nearly 400 years since that First Thanksgiving, we have pushed our natural support system (the web of life) toward its limits, and in a few cases beyond its limits. The idea of sharing is virtually gone as evidenced by the rapidly growing inequality where the wealthy own the bulk of the resources and the associated capacity for thriving and the rest are merely eking out a bare existence.
I doubt whether this heritage of the day is celebrated by many. The Thanksgiving meal has become an empty ritual complete with the pardoning of 10 turkeys by our President. For many, there is a celebration of family, but little more than that. For most others, it is only a blip in the wait for Black Friday. I have seen various estimates of the numbers of shoppers expected to mob the Malls and big box stores, but some reach as high as around 100,000,000. This year, the wait was shortened by a number of giant merchants that were going to open on Thanksgiving Day as soon as a respectable delay had passed. It would make more sense in the future to designate this holiday as Thanksgiving Morning, acknowledging that much of the day was to be spent not in offering thanks for what has been given, but in rush to acquire more and more.
I cannot imagine a more serious indictment of our consumer culture and the damage it is doing to humans and the world than this debasement of what was a recognition of our place within a system without which none of the gifts would be forthcoming. There is no real satisfaction in this frenzy. There is no caring in it. It is a madness. It is a sign of our addiction to materialism. It is also a sign of the power of manipulation by the torrent of advertisements that reflect the omnipresence of the corporate sector.
I am deeply saddened by this spectacle. We were never a culture to value history very highly, especially our own. If we did, we would see the irony in our present behavior on Thanksgiving. Maybe we would even stop and reflect, and put ourselves back into the 1600’s and recall the Native American ways that underpinned the institutionalization of Thanksgiving. Their beliefs that they were a part of the web of life led to a care for it. Giving thanks is an acknowledge of interrelationship or interconnection. Thanking nature for its gifts is the obverse of taking care of it. Communal living is a manifestation of care for one’s fellow humans. These are values and norms that have gotten lost in our becoming moderns, which loss stands in the way of flourishing.
The loss itself is serious, but there is a positive side. If care and connectedness are something we have lost, we can get it back. It is evidence that we are not doomed to be narcissistic, selfish creatures. For me this is perhaps the most important lesson of Thanksgiving. It is not just for the material gifts we have received but, more importantly, for the memory of how we have cared for the world in the past and for the hope that we can recover our caring ways in the future and ultimately flourish.