In the whirlwind of media cycles and marketplaces, society's traditions and holidays provide America with cultural anchors.
Thanksgiving is a holiday that brings to mind enduring values — the importance of family, cooperation, inclusion and, well, thanksgiving. Novelty, however, is nothing short of necessity in the modern economy. For any business trying to get ahead in the era of “digital disruption,” clinging to a vestige of a former generation is not only fodder for ridicule from rivals, but also bad for business. A consumer-based economy often survives on kicking tradition to the curb. In the internet age, society has perhaps never so fully embraced Jack Matson’s famous quip, “innovate or die.”
The cultural traditions of Thanksgiving provide a countervailing emphasis on fixed principles amidst the vicissitudes of modernity. The country has celebrated 153 Thanksgivings since the last Thursday in November became a federal holiday. Thanksgiving was officially christened by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. From year to year, little seems to change, and that’s good. From football and family to friends and feasts, the rituals are as familiar as the line “let’s go around the table and say one thing we’re grateful for.”
These traditions provide a sense of place and community in an increasingly atomized world. Despite the value of novelty in the modern economy, the symbol of thanksgiving is that true fulfillment comes through family, gratitude and a communitarian ethic of cooperation.
Tradition rarely innovates because the path to goodness and the principles of virtue transcend generations. In the case of Thanksgiving, Americans have an opportunity to remember the natives who hosted religious refugees and hopefully reflect on the magnitude of kindness in their own lives. The day reminds celebrants to serve and be served by loved ones. It reminds Americans to look up to heaven as they extend their hands out to others.
It grounds the country, if only for a moment, in the basic and indispensable need to look beyond oneself. Of course celebrating tradition for tradition’s sake is hardly reason to honor something, and rigid adherence to the past can prove harmful. Carefully examining rote practices is a healthy exercise, not only to understand if tradition needs tweaking, but also to more fully appreciate a tradition’s origins.
Although the messages this Thanksgiving might not be original — offering thanks, honoring cooperation between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, remembering to serve others — when taken to heart, these are values that will satisfy the country’s most profound appetite for charity and enduring happiness.
We pray today, echoing the words of Abram Lincoln in his Proclamation of Thanksgiving, for “the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it (to) the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” Harmony, peace and union will come more quickly if America remembers and lives the unchanging lessons of that first Thanksgiving feast.