Most people in the United States celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday last Thursday, typically with a too-large dinner, plus an activity like watching a football game, a parade or the dog show. (Thus the delay in this letter.) In the past, religious observances were common too, even inter-religious services as the civil holiday was neutral ground between Jews, Christians and others. They’re harder to find than before, because of our increasingly secular culture, and perhaps because pre-Thanksgiving travel patterns mean attendees are already out of town. I also suspect first Thanksgiving re-enactments, telling the tales of the Pilgrims, are also fewer or thinly depicted. The binding tale of American origins is wearing thin: many Americans do not look to the Pilgrims as ancestors and the mythology of the welcoming Wampanoag has dissolved against better-told history of abuse against native peoples by settlers. What remains? Shopping, of course. This year is the first I can remember when Christmas sales plainly stepped before Thanksgiving; is this merchants’ desperation?
Not that Christmas sales are newly controversial. My late grandmother recalled “Democratic Thanksgiving” from her youth: when from 1939 to 1941 President Roosevelt backed up Thanksgiving by a week to make more time for Christmas shopping, thus dividing the nation’s observance. After that, war production replaced consumer consumption to drive the economy. The thread that runs through modern Thanksgiving is consuming food and desirable goods. I try not moralize the point of Thanksgiving and Christmas “excess” though. Appeals to a simplified Christmas, Thanksgiving or what-have-you are inexpensive ways to signal that you have enough the rest of the year. What’s the point of feasting if every meal is a comparative feast? By extension, an appeal to simplicity is way to save face, perversely to appear to have more possessions by wanting less. (Generations ago, vegetarianism developed an elite status this way, which is helpful if you couldn’t afford meat anyway.) Provided it causes no harm, let people enjoy what they have, how they like it and when they can, if the circumstances means there’s little otherwise to celebrate or enjoy life.
If simplicity can obscure moralism, epicuranism can sour what we already have to be thankful for. Not epicuranism in the classic and philosophical sense, but a merchant’s appeal to what you should want and have, and by extension, discount and reject. Anyone who watches HGTV knows that stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, walk-in closets, an “open concept” and a “bonus room” are desirable, and that not having them – even not wanting them – is unacceptable. The lesson is always the same: hate what you have, so that you can have as others’ have. It’s a bald example, but not exceptional. It must be hard to be thankful and envious at the same time.
The solution is epicuranism in that classic sense: to moderate the passions so that you can enjoy what you have as it actually is. The gospel glints with this attitude, and cultivating it leads to wisdom and contentment.
Also, please tell your friends and associates about the Universalist Christian Initiative. They can sign up for these updates at http://universalistchristian.org/join/.
(The Rev.) Scott Wells