Three perspectives underlie the structure of Christian thought in the last two millennia. The most familiar one is transcendence where paradise in the metaphor of heaven is located elsewhere than where we currently are. Then there is earthly immanence, the transformation that occurs when one unconditionally embraces the fullness of life in the here-and-now. The third is the spirit of freedom, transparent exercise of responsibility in the realm of finite historical choices.
In ritual, these perspectives were intoned in the medieval formula of naming realities, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!" In current parlance, that would be rehearsing the role of the Terminator, the Transformer, and the Turkey!
Human civilization ritualizes certain events like the culmination of a harvest, the completion of a monumental task, or just the satisfaction over the passing of a crisis. Gratitude is a garden variety of human virtue. It joins other modes of affirmed consciousness in the practices of personal confession, societal petition, and relational intercession, long observed in prayerful communities.
We tarry along the religious path of this national holiday because most Americans gather around family tables this day in the mythology of the first perspective. In such spirit began the annual celebration after Abraham Lincoln in 1863 proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in Heaven."
Brownscombe’s 1914 painting of Plymouth settlers feasting with natives has become a familiar visual to accounts. Historians tell of 53 Plymouth settlers and 90 Indians holding a three-day feast after the settlers survived their first year of harsh winter. (Revisionists point out that narratives, at least, need to acknowledge how the native residents were later turned into targets on T-day’s turkey shoots!)
FDR nailed the date down to the fourth Thursday of November, to settle the uncertainty of day on those years when there are five Thursdays in November. Not all states complied. It became a joke that when there were five Thursdays, observance on the fourth made it Democratic while on the fifth, Republican.
The celebration has commercially evolved into a season of shopping, marked by Macy’s Parade, merrily rolling down the store aisles until way past New Year, with the apex reached with Santa’s gifts under the Tannenbaum bought and wrapped before Christmas eve. The intrusion of the dollar into the equation watered down the religious emphasis, specifically made Christian in the presidential proclamations of Presbyterian pastor’s son Grover Cleveland and staunch Methodist William McKinley.
Gerald Ford made the day totally secular, skewing previous references to providence in his proclamation. The media was not pleased. Ford lost the next election. Ronald Reagan chuckled over "pardoning" the proffered turkey, and George H. W. Bush made the practice a permanent fixture in the annual presidential ritual. Bill Clinton emphasized gratitude to those who serve to promote the American vision and implement its mission. George W. Bush took the task of international peace into the war room on terror after 9/11. Obama was criticized for not thanking "God" in his proclamation of 2011. American sentiment shifted. Obama got re-elected.
Along with many college and professional sports events, holiday movies get a Thanksgiving premiere to test their weight at the box office. The pumpkin pie remains a dinner staple but the contest is in the field on the biggest and heaviest variety raised. Meanwhile, the wild turkey joins the list of endangered species. The t-bird that graces holiday tables lost its thunder and smell, coming from coops where they are fattened for weight. The meat hardly emits the familiar fragrant fowl flavor and aroma characteristic of the wild bird in the prairies now relegated to the trademark of a bourbon.
Thanksgiving Day in China has all the trappings of Western commercial symbols devoid of historical moorings. On Saipan, we render obeisance to providential divinity in the cosmic realm. It is a matter of course but irrelevant. In my campus building, gratitude is echoed by the Anshallah of Muslims from Africa, the Middle East, South-Southeast Asia who share my building’s morning elevator ride with their gracious salutations of Salaam Malaikom! Grace drapes the diversity.
Save for a lone Protestant evangelical, we do not see much of the transformative messianic impulse, amazingly gracious or otherwise. The once “puritanical” CPC battles corruption within its ranks, with President Hu Jintao declaring at the recent Party Congress that if the practice is not curtailed, it will be the death knell of the Party and the government in the next decade. The hyperbole on service reminiscent of Mao’s vaunted service is met by a skeptical smirk. The current gap of income distribution is deep and wide. That’s all that seem to matter in a newly affluent and resurgent China.
The Terminator remained with Ahnold in California. The Transformer is still a toy but got animated in the fight between the Autobots and the Decepticons. As for my gobble gobble, I will stick with the turkey!