(HOST) Today is commentator Olin Robison’s favorite holiday. In fact, he considers Thanksgiving to be one of the best days of the year.
(ROBISON) There are a host of reasons why I think that Thanksgiving is the best of holidays.
It is all inclusive. It is for everyone. It is both religious and secular, both private and public, and it is less complicated than Christmas. And it has the added benefit of not being nearly so commercial as the Christmas season.
Some of this opinion is rooted in my upbringing in East Texas. Back then, church for me was conservative and protestant, that branch of Christendom directly descended from the Reformation, deriving much from the ways that Calvin and Luther and John Knox saw the world centuries earlier.
As I look back now I am convinced that one of the best parts of that theological tradition was its repeated focus on gratitude: upon gratitude to God and also to all of our neighbors who did so much to make life good. We were taught that God’s grace was so great a gift that it could never be repaid. But it was possible to be actively grateful and to show that gratitude in service to others. Over and over, the preachers in those little Baptist churches admonished us that “We are called to a life of service.”
But we were also told that to give thanks without its affecting the way one lived was seen as grevious insincerity or outright hypocrisy – the sin at which, in the gospels, the most scathing words of Jesus were directed.
Gratitude and thanksgiving were, therefore, active rather than passive. If they were sincere, they would govern behavior. Anything less was deemed to be perfunctory and ceremonial, not amounting to much.
In due course I came to understand that there were Catholic and Orthodox and Jewish and Islamic versions of the same idea; that it was, in fact, at the heart of the American ethos. It was without question a part of what had built the country.
In today’s America the concept of gratitude has a hard time. There is plenty of blame to go around.
From the late sixties, when left-wing political radicalism held sway, the politically correct rhetoric emphasized rights, entitlements, and a vision of a social order in which gratitude was seen as evidence of subservience and definitely outmoded. Some of that remains.
Then, in due course, came the ascendency of the political and religious right, with an equally offensive notion of exclusivity which equated good fortune with God’s favor and somehow managed to suggest that the less fortunate are getting what they deserve. Quite a lot of that remains.
Through these ups and downs, the swings of the political pendulum, through these vagaries of American social and political life, Thanksgiving stands as a wonderful and cherished time for most Americarns. It remains as a time of reflection for all but the most insensitive and self-centered.
For me, it is a time when childhood memories resurface, when those cautionary sermons from preachers whose names I have long since forgotten somehow return to my consciousness.
And I hear the refrain from those sermons that real gratitude – which, after all, is what Thanksgiving is all about – that real gratitude results in action. It is never passive.
And I realize again that the theological source of that idea is not all that important to most Americans, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the residual idea that we all have much to be thankful for. And that thanks and gratitude should result in service to others. That really is what matters.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.
This is Olin Robison.
Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and of Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.