Every year at Thanksgiving I trek into Barnes & Noble for an annual ritual of self-mortification. I go to the children’s section and glimpse the book offerings for Thanksgiving.
A friend of mine works in that section, stocking the latest catalog of Thanksgiving books that the corporate folks at Barnes & Noble funnel in. I recall my first conversation with her a few years back.
“How are the Thanksgiving books?” I innocently asked.
“You don’t want to know,” she groaned. She found only one that mentioned giving thanks to God.
“Really?” I responded. “Then who are they giving thanks to?”
“Well,” she said vaguely. “They’re just thankful.”
“ ‘Thankful’ to whom?” I replied. She reiterated: “They’re just thankful.”
I repeated the ritual again this past Sunday. It was equally painful. Among the books featured in the display for kids: “Five Silly Turkeys,” “How to Catch a Turkey,” “Where is Baby’s Turkey?”
Notice a theme? Turkeys, turkeys, turkeys.
Well, not all turkeys. One “Thanksgiving” book particularly caught my eye: Fangsgiving. Presumably a nod to the vampires involved in the pilgrims’ great endeavor.
Well, that isn’t Thanksgiving. Note the complete neglect of God, which ought to be the starting point. For Thanksgiving in America, that was the intent from the outset. That should be the lesson here , especially in children’s books . But it isn’t.
I recently perused a Thanksgiving Day lesson at education.com, a go-to source for teachers. On the main page was a 60-minute lesson plan titled, “Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving.” The introduction instructs the teacher: “Call students together. Ask students to think about some of their favorite holidays and what they like to do on these holidays. Tell students that Thanksgiving is coming up. Ask students what some of their favorite Thanksgiving traditions are. Read ‘Thanksgiving Day.’ ”
“Thanksgiving Day” is one of three books recommended, none of which mention God or religion. There are, however, bountiful references to Native Americans, various tribes, corn, stuffing, potatoes, pie, turkeys. The Creator even gets trumped by cranberry sauce.
The “review and closing” portion of the “Thanksgiving” lesson concluded with these guidelines for the teacher: “Have students line up to present their Thanksgiving fact and what they are thankful for. Congratulate the students on their hard work!”
Welcome, pilgrim, to the new world — a place, incidentally, that the pilgrims fled to for religious reasons.
And why was Thanksgiving started in America?
In 1789, America’s first president proclaimed a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” George Washington implored the heavens to “pardon our national and other transgressions” and urged the citizenry to practice “true religion and virtue.”
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln urged his countrymen to set aside the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Subsequent presidents continued this civic-religious tradition. It was just that: a public holiday proclaimed to give thanks explicitly to God.
But that, ladies and gentlemen, was the old America. In the New America, we apparently know better. And in focusing not on God but turkeys, turkeys, turkeys, that’s what we’ve become —
a bunch of turkeys.
Look, obviously it’s good to be thankful. If we’re teaching children about Thanksgiving, however, can we at least teach them what it was supposed to be about?
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director
of The Center for Vision & Values
at Grove City College.