NATURALLY, IT HAD to be someone as rawboned as Lincoln to issue the first proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. What cared the ectomorphic Abe about the accumulation of mashed potatoes and sweet, of drumsticks and wings, of stuffing, rolls, gravy, more rolls, more gravy, more stuffing, more - not to mention pies pumpkin, mince and apple. For stouter, unLincoln-esque Americans - surely the majority - the holiday has become a self-inflicted menace, the layman's Lent in reverse, the first gluttonous feast in a series of seasonal gluttonies, snowballing as we ourselves snowball toward Christmas. After that, of course, comes the winter of writhings and penance, the health spa and the Y.
Why, indeed. We used to celebrate. Thanksgiving on the fifth, not the fourth Thursday in November. But in 1939, Ohio department-store owner, Fred Lazarus Jr. persuaded FDR to make the holiday a week earlier, thus allowing one more week for Christmas shopping. That is why the historian Daniel Boorstin has called Thanksgiving a "festival of consumption."
The Puritans viewed this day more severely, as you might expect. They used to alternate thanksgiving days with "fast days," days when one did not gorge oneself to express joy at God's bounty, but instead kept one's mouth shut to express contribution in the face of plagues and droughts. An energy crisis isn't enough to justify a first day, that's for sure. And even if we had some indisputable signs of God's displeasure, would we fast today? Fat chance.
And yet: Despite all the chewing and gulping, there emerge two aspects of this unique holiday that always manage to transcend the groaning board - and are considerably more digestible. One is the celebration of family life. The other, the celebration of communal life, which is the central meaning of these feasts. To the Puritans, a thanksgiving day was more than a time for individual gratitude; it was a festival of the common good, a reminder that the common good was of major interest in the eyes of God.
That's one idea that has not changed over the years. Reason enough to give thanks this day.