Michael Schaeffer of the New Republic claims that Thanksgiving is our greatest holiday. Well, it’s not. But Schaeffer does do well in finding much of the greatness there is in Thanksgiving in what it is not.
#1. There is no giving of presents. That, I think, is a relief all around.
#2. There are no parties, with the resulting pressure to throw the biggest and best one. Not to mention the anxiety about being invited to the parties that count.
#3. There’s no mistletoe and no kissing at midnight. So no feeling of being unkissed and so unloved. You don’t have to kiss a stranger or someone you can’t stand just to avoid looking pathetic.
#4. There are no costumes. Well, almost no costumes. School kids occasionally have to dress up as pilgrims or Indians or turkeys.
#5. There’s no pressure to really dress up, to look “alluring.” For once, the point of dinner is mainly to eat—a lot. And so everyone knows tight fitting clothes won’t “work.” People come to eat and talk, not to look at the fancy decorations with which you’ve adorned yourself or your table.
#6. Schaeffer adds: “the concept 'slutty because it’s Thankgiving’ seems kind of disgusting.” For me, that would also be true of Christmas. But I get the point: The self-indulgence of Thanksgiving isn’t sexual, and it’s likely to do the opposite of putting someone in a promiscuously amorous mood.
#7. Thanksgiving is surely our least erotic holiday. Women, of course, often complain that men fall asleep right after sex. The sleep-inducing chemical found in turkey more or less guarantees that on this one day everyone falls asleep before.... And in any case, the general behavior of men on Thanksgiving—overeating and slouching around on the couch watching games—makes them pretty darn unattractive. Plus there are plenty of kids around.
#8. Thanksgiving might be our least Dionysian or unreservedly joyous holiday. It’s not about getting drunk, and it’s hard for alcohol to have its desired effect in a full stomach. It’s not about dancing or even singing. The few Thanksgiving tunes we have are pretty lame.
#9. Thanksgiving is not a PATRIOTIC holiday. Presidents try to make it such with their meaning-laden proclamations. But nobody reads them. Thanksgiving is not that all much about America.
#10. Thanksgiving is not all that particularly a RELIGIOUS holiday. Well, it’s the one day presidents can wax somewhat religiously in said proclamations. But they do so in the boring mode of the reserved “ceremonial Deism” invented or perfected by George Washington. People are asked to count their blessings, which is not something we busy and anxious Americans are ordinarily good at. But the emphasis on nonsectarian inclusiveness mutes the enthusiasm of that gratitude.
#11. Thanksgiving is much less of a COMMERCIAL stimulus package that the other holidays of the “Holiday Season.” Grocery stores and airlines excepted, of course. But, hey, you gotta eat, and everyone has to go home once in a while.
#12. So, we might say, Thanksgiving is mainly about family and, to a lesser extent, friends. It’s about being at home with those you know and love. From that view, a Darwinian might say it’s the holiday that celebrates who we are as members of the most “eusocial” of species.
#13. The homelessness that Thanksgiving is supposed to counter is not the existential homelessness described by Pascal or Sartre. It’s not the homelessness that causes us to long for regression into the womb. Or, for that matter, for a personal savior. It’s the homelessness of a person separated from or otherwise deprived of family and friends. And so it’s about gratitude for being with—knowing and loving with—those emotionally closest to us. It can also be gratitude for having found a new friend and being taken into a new home. My favorite Thanksgiving movie right at the moment is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, in which the Steve Martin character experiences the first kind of gratitude, enhanced by his gift to the John Candy character of the second kind. It's the loneliness often captured by John Candy in film—and by Roy Orbison in song—that's the enemy of Thanksgiving.
#14. The greatness of Thanksgiving is that it doesn’t aspire to greatness, but only to the shared experiences that make living worth living for each one of us.