The first religious day of thanksgiving at Plymouth may actually have been in 1623—and not in autumn, but in late summer—when the colonists offered up their thanks to God after a six-week drought. Occasional days of thanksgiving were declared throughout the colonial era and into the years of the early republic. But it wasn't until Abraham Lincoln called for late-November Thanksgivings in 1863 and 1864—and used explicitly religious language to do so—that the day became an annual, permanent fixture.
But religiously minded supporters of Thanksgiving say that in discarding the traditional first Thanksgiving stories, we risk losing a critically meaningful part of the holiday. "Pilgrims, once champions of religious freedom, are being sacrificed as bigots on the altar of political correctness," Reed wrote. "So who's calling us all to give thanks now?"
It's true that revisionists, in their insistence on toppling myths, can come across like whiney nitpickers. And myths do have their own cultural value. But the problem is that holidays turn into a tug of war between cold, hard history and comforting popular folklore, between fact and faith. Shouldn't our holidays be able to accommodate both?
Do we really have to choose between the extremes of calling Thanksgiving a religious holiday or a civic celebration, a day more like Easter or more like the Fourth of July? Or can't we assume that the holiday has evolved as some more subtle mix of the secular and the spiritual, one that each of us can adjust according to our own values? It doesn't seem unreasonable to assume some religious dimension to Thanksgiving, if only because expressing gratitude for the good things in life is in some sense an inherently spiritual act. But prescribing to others the right way to observe the day is surely one aspect of the traditional Thanksgiving best left behind.
Even if Thanksgiving is a religious holiday, it must rank as the most accessible of all. Unlike on other holidays, as Reed points out, there are no potentially mystifying doctrines (like resurrection or virgin birth) to wrestle with, and the environmental themes (the Wampanoag practiced something like sustainable agriculture) are certainly in step with the times. Ministers say the day can be popular with people who want to test the religious waters. They head for churches and soup kitchens on Thanksgiving, attracted by the spirit of ecumenism and the emphasis on sharing and good works. If you had to identify Thanksgiving with any particular religious tradition, it might be part of what sociologist Robert Bellah called the American civil religion, combining elements of American history and myth with a general belief in Providence.
Even adamant nonbelievers such as philosopher Daniel C. Dennett say they have no problem with Thanksgiving, stipulating that thanks are directed to "goodness," not God. True, that runs afoul of those who insist on "thanking HIM." But for the perennially disputatious Thanksgiving table, that can be considered close enough.
Now if we could just settle on the right wine to serve.