Could Thanksgiving Have Originated Today?Commentary by Pete du Pont
November 21, 1996
It's Thanksgiving once again and all across America individuals, families and groups will be sitting down in front of a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey and dressing. And many will take the time to give thanks for all the blessings we have received as individuals and as a nation.
But it's a good thing that this tradition started back in 1621, because if thankful Pilgrims were to try to create a Thanksgiving holiday today, they would face obstacles that they would never believe. Just consider some of the problems they would encounter:
The religious component. Though the religious component of Thanksgiving is often ignored today, it is, in its origin, a religious holiday marked by prayers and feasting. The Pilgrims had undergone a perilous journey to a new continent, not entirely aware of what was in store for them. When they decided to celebrate that first Thanksgiving, it was a time to give thanks to God for their first harvest.
But could the Pilgrims have started such a religious holiday today? Not without a fight. For one thing, they held that first Thanksgiving feast in a public place, in part because they had no building large enough to hold all the people who attended. Were the Pilgrims to try to establish such a religious holiday in a public place today, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, which consider themselves the self-appointed protectors from all things religious, would surely object.
The Constitution prohibits any such action in a public place, they would argue. The Pilgrims can have their service in their own church, but not in a public place that is funded by tax dollars. Further, how could one justify giving official status to a religious holiday, violating the wall of separation between church and state?
In addition, others might object to the fact that the Pilgrims would be giving thanks to a deity identified with a specific religion, Christianity - indeed, a specific branch of Christianity. Such a service would be exclusive in nature rather than inclusive. What of other religions which would also like to give thanks, they might ask? Wouldn't it be offensive to them if the prayer were offered up in the name of Jesus Christ? Are we to think that only the God of Christianity is responsible for these blessings? And most of all, wouldn't the Indians, about 90 of whom also participated, be offended that no thanks would be given to the Great Spirit?
The food component. The first great feast was prepared by the Pilgrims and Indians themselves. The Pilgrim men shot the turkeys and other fowl and the Pilgrim women prepared the food, while Indians brought venison and some of their traditional fare. This would have been totally out of line with today's food preparation laws. City employees would need to certify that the kitchens were acceptable and up to code.
In addition, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would likely protest the use of turkeys and other animals for the main dish. Were this Thanksgiving service ever to catch on, they might argue, a whole industry might arise devoted to the raising and slaughtering of the innocent turkey.
The legislative component. The original Thanksgiving lasted over three days, and we don't exactly know which ones they were. But Thursday eventually became the designated day, which causes all types of problems.
Congress would be up in arms if anyone proposed creating a holiday on Thursday today. Didn't proponents realize how much better it would be to have the feast on a Monday so that people could enjoy a three-day weekend? Clearly, somebody hadn't been considering the political implications of creating a Thursday holiday.
Indeed, Congress might go even further. There are about 3 million federal employees. Figuring an average salary of $35,000, the federal government would have to fork out about $400 million to give its employees a holiday - not very appealing in a time of budget constraints.
Given all of these factors, it is very unlikely that Thanksgiving could be instituted today - a fact you may want to take into consideration in your Thanksgiving prayer. First be thankful for all the blessings God has bestowed on us and our country, and then be thankful that we have a day on which to give thanks.
Because if we tried to do it over again, we might not succeed.