Thanksgiving: America magazine’s favorite secular holiday
Happy Thanksgiving! Around the America offices in midtown Manhattan, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the busiest season of the year: In addition to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (which will pass beneath our windows on Thursday), soon we will see the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree around the corner. And just across the street, Fox News lit their “All-American Christmas Tree” last night. It all means an unbelievable amount of foot traffic for the next month, leading many an America employee to utter a “bah humbug!” or two while swimming against the human tide on Sixth Avenue to reach the office door.
Secular holidays in general have never enjoyed gentle treatment in the pages of America, truth be told, with Valentine’s Day and Halloween enduring the most skepticism over the years. After reading the editors’ thoughts in the magazine's early days, one might think that if a holiday wasn’t found in the Roman Missal, it was a Masonic plot. But the editors have long had a soft spot in their hearts for Thanksgiving, perhaps because the holiday feels so biblical in name and sentiment.
The editors on Thanksgiving in 1935: “We warm to the medieval baron who quaffed his tankard of ale in honor of Christ the King, and there is no reason why we should not enjoy a beefsteak.”
In 1911, America published the entirety of President William Howard Taft’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation. In those days, a yearly “Pan-American Mass” on Thanksgiving Day in St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, D.C., regularly drew a congregation that included the U.S. president, several Supreme Court justices and a number of members of Congress. When some Protestant denominations complained the venue was inappropriate, America’s editors quickly responded, writing in 1913: “Is it not far more appropriate and significant than a banquet or a bull-fight?”
In 1917, America approvingly quoted “the beautiful words of the President of the United States,” Woodrow Wilson, on Thanksgiving Day, when he prayed that “our minds may be directed and our hands strengthened, and that in His good time, liberty and security and peace and the comradeship of a common justice may be vouchsafed all the nations of the earth.”
Years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, the editors argued that even an excess of food and drink could be excused on Thanksgiving, calling in 1935 for “a Catholic observance of Thanksgiving Day”:
We warm to the medieval baron who quaffed his tankard of ale in honor of Christ the King, and there is no reason why we should not enjoy a beefsteak, if we can procure one, and a cannikan of whatsoever liquor may appeal, or be available, also in His honor.
In recent years, America contributors have offered moving reflections on Thanksgiving as a moment to mark the passage of time and appreciate the lessons of our forebears. Writing in 2014, Valerie Schultz ruminated on “Thanksgiving in Five Acts,” viewing the holiday from the perspective of a child, a college student, a young mother, an older parent with adult children and, finally, an elderly woman for whom “gratitude is a daily affair, a morning prayer couched in the awareness that each Thanksgiving may be my last.” Thanksgiving, she wrote, “is ever a day to pause and reflect, and to overflow with gratitude for the many blessings from the hand of a loving God. Some things never change.”
“All that is bad and good, just and unjust, lives, rests and dies under God’s watch, breath, shadow. We return it all to God, to do with it as he will, and in so doing we become liberated.”
In 2017, Simcha Fisher offered some acid reflections on how the secular world has turned Thanksgiving into madness, a holiday with more rules and regulations than the Catholic Church. Putting nutmeg in the sweet potatoes? A mortal sin! “That is what this family has come to! Nutmeg, indeed. Anathema!”
Two years later, however, she returned with a happier confession: While teaching faith formation to young Catholics, she realized that “Thanksgiving Day really is an image of the Eucharistic meal.” Why?
“Sometimes one of my guests spends the whole time irritating me, intentionally or not. Sometimes I don’t snap, but sometimes I do. Sometimes I wear myself out cleaning, and I have no energy left to enjoy the meal,” she wrote. “Sometimes there is some mystical confluence of goodwill and good work, and the room overflows with an unreasonable joy that cannot be explained by mere food and candles and wine. Something else was present in that room. It certainly was not all about me and my efforts.”
In 2020, America senior editor J.D. Long-Garcia reminded readers that for a lot of Americans, Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t involve a turkey. “Fried plantains, rice and beans, pernil and dancing. Does that sound like Thanksgiving to anyone else? It does to a lot of Latinos living in the United States,” he wrote about his own family’s celebration. So too might tamales or lomo relleno or capirotada grace the holiday table in Mexican-American households. Thanksgiving in a Cuban-American family might include lechón, arroz congri and pastelitos. “On my gratitude list, I have the many Latin American cultures I have experienced thanks to my work in Catholic media,” Long-Garcia added. “¡Mil gracias, hermanos y hermanas!”
“At Thanksgiving, if we are Christians, we give thanks. There is no alternative. We do not operate our lives with spreadsheets in front of us delineating what exactly we can or cannot be grateful for,” wrote Joe Hoover, S.J., America poetry editor, in 2021. “I know someone who gives thanks for every last brutal and death-dealing thing in his life. The world is God’s, all of it. All that is bad and good, just and unjust, lives, rests and dies under God’s watch, breath, shadow. We return it all to God, to do with it as he will, and in so doing we become liberated.”
And finally, for those of you who might be facing a Thanksgiving filled with some family discord and a few reasons for ingratitude, we have this 2017 offering from America editor at large James Martin, S.J., “A Thanksgiving Prayer for Nearly Everyone,” including these lines worth remembering:
Most of all, God, I’m grateful for your presence in my life. You’re everywhere, and if I remember to pay attention I can see your invitation to meet you in every moment of the day. I know that it is you who turn my mind to thoughts of gratitude. And when I’m tempted to focus only on the problems and worries and fears, I know that I’m being led away from you.
Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: This fall, we are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
- The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
- What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?
- Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review
- Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
James T. Keane