Steven S. Drachman on Paul Krugman: What is this “Thanksgiving,” Anyway

The word comes down from The New York Times

This morning, the day after Thanksgiving, Paul Krugman wrote a column entitled Why Trump Should Hate Thanksgiving.

“[D]o Trump and his band of bigots even understand what Thanksgiving is about?” Krugman asks. “If they did, they would hate this most American of holidays. After all, the Pilgrims were refugees fleeing persecution by the English monarchy, which at the time was still an autocratic regime. They were, in other words, exactly the kind of people Trump and company want to keep out.”

Trump and his band of jolly demogogues, on the other hand, really do care greatly about discrimination and refugees, so long as the discrimination we’re talking about is religious persecution against Christians. And as he has noted in the past, he would be delighted to accept more immigration, if the immigrants come from Western Europe, rather than what he defines as “shithole countries.” So the Puritan Pilgrims are in fact exactly the kind of people Trump and company want to keep in.

Is Thanksgiving irreligious?

But where I think Krugman is really precisely wrong is when he writes about the irreligious nature of Thanksgiving itself.

“Finally,” he concludes, “Thanksgiving is thoroughly nondenominational. Lincoln’s proclamation gave thanks to Almighty God, but was vague about the Almighty’s nature. There’s nothing about the holiday that reserves it for believers in any particular religion, or in fact any formal religion at all, and it’s open to all cultures.”

A few years back, my daughter’s public elementary school in Brooklyn passed around a Thanksgiving poem, each line of which began “I thank You for….” Regardless of personal belief, I don’t want any religion in public school, even if it is theoretically non-denominational. (Non-denominational really means all religions – sometimes all Christian religions – and leaves out non-believers.) I groused about this a bit, although the general consensus was that this was a general statement of gratitude, which could be offering thanks to family and friends, with whom we are celebrating the day, after all. This didn’t explain why “You” was capitalized, but I chose not to make any trouble.

Thanksgiving — which is my favorite holiday, for reasons I can’t really explain — is usually thought of as a non-religious holiday, but the name itself gives this away – if one is an atheist, whom are you thanking? (“Grateful Day” would be a better name, I guess.) I thought it might be interesting to look at the proclamations instituting Thanksgiving.

President Washington, on Thanksgiving

First, George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, with these words:

“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks….’ to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion….”

And he goes on from there.

President Lincoln, on Thanksgiving

As you know, Thanksgiving then got punted back to the states for a century, at which point President Lincoln instituted it again at the federal level, with these words:

“the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies… are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come…. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God…. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens … with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience….”

I like the idea of Thanksgiving as a day of “penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” He was talking about the Civil War (so I gather he meant that it was a day of penitence for the South, but not for the rest of us), but maybe America really does need a national Yom Kippur.

May you have an Easy and Meaningful Thanksgiving!


Image by Hannah Busing, Unsplash

Steven S. Drachman is the author of Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, which is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.