- A Holiday from Politics
by Wendy McElroy
Italians blame their government for every ill; one saying roughly translates as "It is raining again -- Pig of a Government!" As delightful as this attitude may be, there is a problem with viewing every event through a political lens. It tends to blur those purely human and nonpolitical values of everyday life such as the love of family and friends. Our society increasingly looks to government either as the cause of all evil or as the solution. The truth is more that government is (or should be) irrelevant to human productivity and happiness. The government creates nothing: it only takes and redistributes. Thanksgiving -- a celebration of harvest and family -- is a potent reminder that our lives are enriched by our own efforts, not by government.
Nor does the celebration occur because Washington D.C. deems it to be a national holiday. Human beings have banded together to celebrate the harvest since recorded time and before. The ancient Greeks honored Demeter, the goddess of corn and grain, in a festival each autumn. The Romans similarly honored their goddess of corn, Ceres, from whom we derive the word cereal. The ancient Chinese celebrated the "birthday of the moon" with a harvest festival called Chung Ch'ui. From the early Egyptians to the Hebrews to the First American Thanksgiving in 1621, human beings have come together with thanks, even in times of war and sorrow.
Of course, governments have tried to politicize these spontaneous rites and use them to their own ends. On October 3, 1863, as Civil War raged, President Abraham Lincoln issued a "Proclamation of Thanksgiving." The celebration officially became a national holiday. But, to Lincoln, Thanksgiving seemed to be part of the military effort in which Americans were slaughtering Americans. The President gave thanks that "order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union." He also gave thanks for the harvest because it provided, "Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry," to those of war.
While politicians attempt to usurp Thanksgiving, some social critics try to disown it. They paint the Pilgrims at Plymouth as politically incorrect hypocrites. Their reasoning: the Indians (native Americans) who ensured the survival of the colonists were, in turn, decimated by disease or murdered by other colonists in the decades thereafter. Thus, American Thanksgiving is transformed into a poignant and PC commentary on social injustice. This misses the point. Just as Thanksgiving has nothing to do with a war effort, it is also utterly divorced from genocide. Thanksgiving embodies the opposite of human conflict: it is when we pause to celebrate productivity, the good will of friends and the families surrounding us. Had the native Americans slaughtered the first Pilgrims, they would not have prevented the flood of immigrants who followed. They would not have avoided the tragedy of the diseases that were introduced. Rather, the United States would have lost one of its most compelling incidents of inter-racial good will.
It was an inspiring act of a good will that commentators sometimes diminish by observing that the Indians provided most of the food consumed. Although this is factually accurate, it does not reflect the inability of the Pilgrims to feed themselves, as is often concluded. After a brutal beginning during which they relied upon the generosity of native Americans, the Pilgrims quickly learned how to coax bounty out of the soil, to salt fish from the rivers and hunt for plentiful game. Their independence was remarkably swift and a tribute to hard work. The Indians provided most of the food for the First Thanksgiving for one simple reason. In extending an invitation to the "families" of their native friends, the Pilgrims had simply not expected many dozens of relatives to show up for dinner. The Indians sent back for food in order to feed their own extended families.
Thanksgiving remains a day to celebrate human productivity and good will. It is a day on which to close the door on both government and those who would make "the personal, political."