Thanksgiving in America is a thing to behold. We vaguely recall its Puritan origins, and vaguely associate it with religion. But mainly it is about family, food, and football. These are all social bonds. A Frenchman recently praised the American tradition precisely because it elevated eating not as a biological act, but as a social act, as an “invitation back to civilization.” And so it is.
The Democratic party recently advised readers on how to take over Thanksgiving with flashcards—marked by “overtones of snark and undertones of rage”—designed to enhance friction and division around this day under the banner of “a guide to talking politics with your Republican uncle.” Conservatives pounced, of course. “Must they politicize everything?” And on this point, conservatives had the upper hand. There are some things which should be sacrosanct, not because they are not at all political, but because they are somehow the basis for the common good which is prior to politics, and which politics should protect and serve. Yet it’s worth thinking for a moment why “thanksgiving” is so central to the American experiment in liberty.
Thanking people is an everyday occurrence, or it should be. We thank people when they hold the door open for us. We wave thankfully to the person in the car behind us who let us into their lane. If our loved ones serve us a good meal, we spontaneously say “thank you.” But once a year, we celebrate a kind of hyper-abundant thanksgiving. Like the Puritans, we set aside this day to pile up the thanks as high as we can, and this is a civilizational act.
Counting blessings, adding up the good things of your life, including the gift of life itself, makes for a more virtuous people precisely because it increases the virtue of gratitude in those who are so thankful. St. Thomas Aquinas understood that the virtue of gratitude leads people to happiness, and that it is “the mark of a happy disposition to see good rather than evil.”
Thanksgiving is set aside not to plunge us ever deeper into political division, but to fix our eyes on the goods which we share in common. And this is why we associate Thanksgiving most specifically with friends and family, with food and with football. It is not that we are unaware of divisions, strife, pain, friction, brokenness, or sorrow. It’s that there is a human social need to see the good, and to give thanks. The genius of Thanksgiving in the American experiment is that it tacitly acknowledges that liberty itself depends on these common goods, and also depends on our disposition toward them and one another.
Aristotle and Aquinas both observe that friendships are thus preserved by the virtue of gratitude. Thanksgiving, then, is thus essential to our social nature. Gratitude is a way of forgiving our indebtedness to one another. Giving thanks isn't about scoring political points, but refreshing our society.
There is something excessive about all of this. Thanksgiving is not an explicitly Christian holiday. But it has the character of what the medievals called “the virtue of religion.” That is, “religion” as Augustine once defined it broadly as those social bonds which tie us together, one to another, and also to the Supreme Good. And this is why, as St. Thomas puts it, “Gratitude always inclines, as far as possible, to pay back something more.”
Thanksgiving is about excessiveness. Maybe we will eat too much. But we literally cannot give thanks too much. Our American forefathers knew, just as we tacitly acknowledge in our continuation of the tradition, that gratitude binds us together. We should not want to be free of it because it orders our loves and our liberties well. It disposes us to happiness the moment we begin giving thanks to one another precisely because it roots us ever more deeply in bonds of affection. Again, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The debt of gratitude flows from charity . . . wherefore it is not unreasonable if the obligation of gratitude has no limit.”
And when we say that gratitude, we arrive at the way in which Thanksgiving is religious. Because gratitude is a debt to be paid joyfully, deep down we have a fundamental need to give thanks to the very cause of our existence, which most (if not all) call God. This is the kind of thanksgiving that a happy civilization rests upon. It flows from a strange kind of debt. It flows from a recognition that we are not the cause of our own existence, and that the debt we owe to God for the abundant riches of creation, including the gift of ourselves, our parents and children, all our friends and family, is a debt of love. Again, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The debt of gratitude flows from the debt of love, and from the latter no man should wish to be free.”
No man, woman, or child should wish to be free of this debt. Gratitude to God, and to neighbor, is the beginning of freedom. And it should be guarded and given joyfully on this one day above all others precisely as an “invitation back to civilization,” a safe harbor from our exhausting political battlefields.
C. C. Pecknold is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.