THANKSGIVING IS the preferred American holiday not just because it is free of commercial pressures, denominational exclusiveness, and the insatiable longing of children. A month shy of the winter solstice, it is also less prone to inflict seasonal affective disorder, but that does not explain its appeal either. Nor does its distance from the frenzy of New Year's. Thanksgiving's place at the center of national good feeling might seem to derive from the sweet, if ahistorical, morality tale of amity between Pilgrims and native peoples. As the universal occasion of family reunion, what else is needed to account for its sanctity?
Sanctity: there's the clue. Even a secular age desires holiness, and religious people, for their part, want holiness shorn of the normal hypocrisies of organized religion. At Thanksgiving, the secular and religious impulses, usually taken to be antagonists, salute each other with respect. Their spheres overlap. The holiday is built around gratitude, which is nothing less than the great human opening to transcendence, however defined.
What do we talk about, to paraphrase Raymond Carver, when we talk about thanks? Awareness begins when a person grasps the single-most basic fact of existence, which is that existence is given.
The most important aspects of each human's condition, from physical makeup to intelligence to family connections to cultural legacy, are accidents of birth. The givens of life do not begin with us. How we make use of what we are given is something else, but givenness is the starting point. Self-consciousness is the recognition that we ourselves are not the source of our most precious selfhood. A religious view makes the instinctive leap from the given to the giver, calls it "God,'' and offers gratitude as the essential form of worship.
But there is a secular equivalent to this impulse, even if it assumes no particular "giver,'' no intelligent designer - nothing personal. The accidents of birth may have been shaped by a set of temporal precedents - driven, say, by cold dynamics like natural selection and random mutation. But what we are left with is the sacred experience of being, when there could have been nothingness. Awe, wonder, fear, and trembling - these define the spiritual response of the human person, who not only exists, but is existence conscious of itself.
Gratitude is built into that consciousness, needing no specified object, much less a named benefactor. Gratitude extends simply to all that went before, and all that sustains. Grateful to parents, and all ancestors; grateful to the fragile web of nature; grateful to the very air. As Americans, we can be grateful to particular traditions that protect our freedoms, and press us to expand them. As creatures, we can be so grateful to creation as to refuse the urge to make it stand for something else - even a Creator. We can say thanks without saying thank you. Gratefulness is open-ended.
An intense awareness of what is given assumes the like awareness that it will be taken. There was a time when the bounty of life that we celebrate by feasting did not exist, and a day is coming when it will be gone. Knowing that the feast will end is the precondition of true festivity.
No accident, therefore, that Thanksgiving comes as the climax of autumn, the season of mortality, when the vital abundance of nature harvests itself in one last flame-out of red and gold. The December holiday is all about nostalgia, a dream of the past. The New Year's holiday is all about anticipation, resolutions for the future. Thanksgiving is the holiday of the present tense. We celebrate what we have and who we are - right now.
When religious folks take proper note of the transcendent gratitude of those for whom "God'' is not necessary, believers, too, can be more open to the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving. One can leap too quickly to the other world, shortchanging this one. The overflowing banquet table is nothing if not worldly, gloriously so. Giving thanks to and for the ones with whom we gather is thus a profoundly secular act. But the great religions all say that such rare heartiness is enough - that loving gratefulness among humans is the only thanks that God ever wanted in the first place.