Thanksgiving: A Liturgical Conundrum

by Drew Denton What must they think of us, those briny, bright-souled Calvinists who washed up on these shores like disoriented escapees from a Renaissance Faire gone wrong? They fled in part because they found religious holidays—even the few that remained in England’s eviscerated liturgical calendar—to be idolatrous and distasteful, pious excuses for excessive revelry. They fled in part because they thought the Stuart monarchs too permissive of sporting events, especially on days appointed for prayer. Yet they remain with us now, when remembered at all, as the mythical founders of the holiest Feastday on our federal calendar, the one that, under a veneer of reverence, inspires the heaviest drinking, the most determined gluttony, and the most instinctive devotion to a dehumanizing sport. I make it a policy, professionally and personally, to eschew generalizations about this spectrum of “precise sorts” of Christians whose collective moniker obscures more than it illumines—who remain, like the God they served, obstinately mysterious despite the superfluity of their literary remains. I think it safe to suggest, however, that any quorum of Puritans plopped down in our midst would before long be petitioning Congress to do away with Thanksgiving.

You could argue, of course, that the Puritans are indirectly responsible for the ritualized indulgence that we now celebrate each November. Indeed, you could get vindictive about it—as, I must admit, the part of me that’s’ spent the past several years forswearing my Puritan patrimony sometimes does—and conclude that they had it coming. That their dismantling of the Christian calendar left only the state (and in these latter days, the almighty consumer market) to rush in with their secular pieties and declare a monopoly on appropriate ways of keeping time. That feasts, with their attendant excesses, will be kept and Days of Obligation, with their rote invocations, observed; that if this social instinct is removed from the Church’s purview, then it will be harnessed toward more idolatrous ends by the Convention or the Politburo or whatever Civil Religion happens to have taken hold. The “Puritan heritage” of the United States has often been overblown and misconstrued, but if such a thing does exist, it surely helps account for the curious fact that so many American Christians now unthinkingly structure their lives around a set of Holy-days instituted for the purposes of nation-worship or contrived for the benefit of the mass sentimentalization industry. It was this lamentable state of liturgical misdirection that provoked Stanley Hauerwas, in one of his more legendary pontifications, to warn a group of youth ministers that their salvation was “in doubt” if they belonged to churches that commemorated Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July, or Thanksgiving.[1]

I’ve witnessed some remarkably crude forms of adherence to the Hallmark lectionary in my time. I’ve heard a preacher discount Easter as an unbiblical concept and three weeks later dedicate an entire worship service to the more venerable ecclesial tradition known as Mother’s Day. I’ve watched another pastor plot out his summer schedule and happily note how easy it was to plan this stretch of the year, since Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, and the Fourth of July left only a few Sundays to scramble for sermon topics. I didn’t issue any Hauerwasian anathemas on these occasions, but I did quietly marvel at the degree to which the imaginations of these ministers had been secularized, at least when it came to keeping time. And as I continued to acclimate myself to more traditional rhythms of Christian worship, I began to question the premises of the pseudo-religious solemnities that I had been taught to observe.

Thanksgiving was clearly the most religious such solemnity in our household. Christmas was, to be sure, a “higher” holy day for me than for many of my free-church peers: my parents preferred “Gesu Bambino” to “Jingle Bells,” took us to Christmas Eve masses more than once, treated the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge as a deutero-canonical parable, and introduced me to It’s A Wonderful Life, with all its Catholic undertones. But our domestic celebrations included no special prayers or devotions or explicit acknowledgments of the day’s significance to disciples of Christ. Nor did our more muted egg hunts or ham dinners at Easter—and how special could Easter be anyways, since, with the exception of our three-year stint in San Antonio, it never included any time off from school? Only Thanksgiving was understood to entail a religious obligation, and only Thanksgiving prompted a domestic ritual of prayer and scripture reading each year.

In my adult life, I’ve sought to redirect my pious inclinations toward Christian holidays rather than civic solemnities. I continue to wonder, however, whether such an effort requires me to question the legitimacy of the Thanksgiving celebrations that have proven so meaningful in the past. Grant that it is a creation of the U.S. government rather than first-millennium Christianity: still, what could possibly be objectionable about a day set aside for giving thanks?

The long answer, I think, is that days of thanksgiving bear a tendency toward grandstanding and divine manipulation. A day of overeating and compulsive shopping must seem to outsiders like an eccentric way of expressing humility in the face of God’s blessings. Thanksgiving prayers can at times veer dangerously close to becoming congratulatory inventories or, worse, comparative judgments—the Pharisee too gave thanks that he was not like other men (Luke 19:11). Moreover, civic rites of thanksgiving have often been employed to court God’s favor or bargain for future blessings on a particular group of people. Puritan days of thanksgiving functioned explicitly in this manner, as did their state-sponsored successors in the early national period. Southerners were right to suspect that Lincoln’s wartime enshrinement of the Thanksgiving holiday was an attempt to corral God into the Union cause; they of course marked their own separate day of Thanksgiving to ensure that God would not venture north of the Potomac. One might argue that this history of tribal pandering–oriented more toward the capricious deities of pagan times than the God of Christian scripture—renders our Thanksgiving an inherently idolatrous feastday.

But the short answer is…well, nothing. Once due precautions have been taken against crass materialism or manipulative idolatry, there is nothing wrong with observing a ritual of thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day. This assertion is admittedly informed by personal considerations. I’m still running from Puritanism, you see, and it would be awfully Puritan of me to discredit a day of reverence simply because of its pagan origins. Much of the liturgical calendar that I now cherish was born out of faith that Christ’s grace could transform the cycle of civic idolatry. I’m not arguing that Thanksgiving should become a part of the Christian calendar—much less than it ought to eclipse the beginning of Advent, which often occurs, almost an afterthought, on the same weekend—but I do believe there’s hope for a properly Christian reclamation of the holiday. Despite their baffling conclusions, those anti-Easter polemicists do have a point.[2] Every Sunday eucharist is a Feast of the Resurrection, just as every Sunday eucharist is a Feast of the Incarnation. Every Sunday eucharist is also, tautologically, a Feast of Eucharist, that is, of Thanksgiving. It does not follow, in any of these case, that a special annual celebration is fundamentally misguided. So if a time-bending shipload of “precise sorts” should show up next year and seek to strike Thanksgiving from the books, this twelfth-generation defector from their ranks is going to root for them to fail—not out of spite, mind you, but simply because it seems that we ought to embrace any occasion for giving thanks. It is, after all, our duty and our salvation.

[1.] See Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011), 116–7. Also available online at the Princeton Seminary Bulletin.

[2.] A couple of points actually, the other being that “Easter” is a non-biblical and woefully inadequate word. If you should happen to hear me slipping into Romance languages during Holy Week, it’s not because I’m trying to impress anyone, but because Pascua or Pâques actually provide some clue as to what we’re about, namely, celebrating our Passover.

Drew Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in church history at Emory University and a catechist at his local parish.