When it comes to the holidays, I’m something of a liberal traditionalist. I love the rituals of the holiday season: the same dishes, perfected by repetition, the joy of unpacking a familiar holiday ornament; the flood of cards in the mail. And I love making new traditions, too. But this year I’m holding particularly close to one of my family’s oldest practices: the use of former Connecticut governor Wilbur Cross’s 1936 Thanksgiving proclamation as a benediction before the Thanksgiving meal. I’ve reproduced the text here in case any of you want to use it for yourselves: some of the best traditions are portable, and can easily be shared with others. Cross wrote:
Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. In observance of this custom, I appoint Thursday, the twenty-third of November, as a day of Public Thanksgiving for the blessings that have been our common lot and have placed our beloved State with the favored regions of earth — for all the creature comforts: the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from labor of every kind that has sustained our lives — and for all those things, as dear as breath to the body, that quicken man’s faith in his manhood, that nourish and strengthen his spirit to do the great work still before him: for the brotherly word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each to his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land; — that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our Harvest Home.
I totally understand that Cross’s language here may not be for everyone. It’s more religious than some of you might like. It’s possibly more optimistic about the American idea than many of you might feel.
But Cross’s proclamation feels especially important to me this year as a reminder of things that seem far out of reach: the idea that the way our public officials communicate with us should elevate us, rather than degrade us; the possibility that eloquence and erudition might be used to unite us rather than demeaned in an attempt to divide us; the prospect that mystery might have a place in our public life without demanding that we all express fealty to a creed; the argument that we all have a lot of work to do, and that we need to do it together.
Cross wrote this Thanksgiving proclamation in the depths of the Great Depression, when material conditions for many Americans were extremely grave and when frightening, divisive ideas were circulating in public discourse. I can’t think of many people in American public life today who could write like this, or who would even try. So at a moment when looking to the past for American greatness has mostly become a way to express resentment, it felt appropriate to treat this sort of gratitude and determination like a tradition that we never lost. We need it more than ever.