It’s jarring to see retailers jump the gun on merchandise for any holiday, but the increasingly widespread practice of kicking off Christmas sales at the first sign of Fall is particularly bizarre to see in America, where we have a national holiday—one of the nation’s oldest—in the interim. This ambivalence toward Thanksgiving is especially ironic given its public purpose: to pause, reflect, and give thanks for our embarrassment of riches. It’s as if we’re saying, “Who has time to count our blessings when there are more to grasp?”
That temptation to rush from one desire to the next is nothing new. It’s rooted in the nature of man, for whom “change in all things is sweet,” as Aristotle, quoting Euripides, wrote in the “Nicomachean Ethics.”
Aristotle attributed our attraction to novelty for the sake of novelty—what scholars Ben and Jenna Storey call our “restless love of change”—to man’s “certain defective condition.” That is, humans are incomplete, or mortal. And though we’re aware of our mortality, it’s painful to think about. So, we distract ourselves and resist reflection, since doing so may require acknowledging our dependence on others’ endeavors, even as we recognize the vanity of some of our own.
Hence, Aristotle also noted that most people are forgetful of the benefits we’ve received from others. We’d prefer to focus on the good things we’ve done for ourselves and others, since this reassures us of our self-sufficiency. Aristotle even pointed out that benefactors love their beneficiaries more than their beneficiaries love them. Gratitude is appropriate, but pride gets in the way.
In some cases, we go so far as to dwell on the harm that’s been done to us rather than contemplate the good, since this, too, can give us a sense of pride in overcoming obstacles and beating the odds.
But, as Aristotle recognized, though justice does involve remedying harms suffered, it also demands gratitude for the good, and, given our forgetfulness of the good things done for us, we need reminders. Aristotle’s example of such encouragement is illustrative: “Hence, people place a shrine to the Graces in the roadway,” he explained, in order to foster gratitude and reciprocal giving.
The Graces were Greek goddesses who represented beauty, grace, and gratitude, and a monument to them would nudge passersby to follow their example. Indeed, it would stop them in their tracks. As political theorist Mary Nichols notes in her work on Aristotle, the Greek term he used to indicate the shrine’s location in the roadway, “empod?n,” literally means “in the way of one’s feet.”
Aristotle’s shrine to the Graces, then, is meant to serve not just as a memorial but as a stumbling block, prompting those racing either to grasp the next exciting thing or to avenge some past harm to instead stop, reflect, and “take the lead in being gracious,” as Aristotle put it.
Thanksgiving is the American version of this stumbling block. It designates a time for all to “cease from their daily work” and give thanks for their “many and great blessings,” as Theodore Roosevelt remarked in his 1908 Thanksgiving Day proclamation.
This thanks is not to be self-aggrandizing, a subtle pat on the back that we have done so well for ourselves. Aware of the perennial temptation to, like the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel, disguise boasting as gratitude, Abraham Lincoln modeled the humility necessary in order to genuinely give thanks. In the middle of the Civil War, a time when blessings must have seemed hard to come by, Lincoln not only found many to count, but also reminded the American people how unearned they were: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
He thus recommended penance in addition to prayer, urging citizens to “humble themselves in the dust.”
Yet, as all turkey-loving Americans know, Thanksgiving entails not only “solemn praise and thanksgiving” but, just as importantly, joyful conviviality, as Amy and Leon Kass’ brief history of the holiday captures.
From the Pilgrims’ famous feast with Native Americans to the 20th-century introduction of Thanksgiving Day parades, our tradition has been marked by both humble contemplation of unearned grace and festive celebration of all we’ve been given. Both elements remind us to cherish the time we have now, resisting the urge to look ahead in anticipation of future gifts.
We should always strive to live in this way—present to the timebound world around us rather than missing it in the frantic and sometimes futile habits that characterize modern life. Nonetheless, there is wisdom in the American tradition of carving out a specific time for gratitude, halting us in our race to Christmas, and, hopefully, slowing our pace thereafter, so our hearts will be ready for the next season when it comes.