(Denver Post, Nov. 21) America has a memory problem. Most of us couldn’t tell you who our great-grandparents were. Most people who live in Denver, Parker, Thornton, or Greeley couldn’t tell you who their hometown was named after.
Most of us couldn’t possibly remember who the days of the week were named for either. And as the years pass, it seems that fewer and fewer Americans remember who we’re supposed to be thanking on Thanksgiving Day.
School’s out all week on our campus, and the students will like that. Thanks, professor. Harvest bounty will flow from the farms through the kitchens and onto festive tables. Thanks, Mom – or thanks, Dad, if it’s a restaurant party. Sports and entertainment will have a big weekend starting Thursday, retailers a really big one starting Friday. Thanks, consumers. Airports will be even more hectic than usual. Thanks for nothing, TSA.
But if we skate along to the following Monday with no more reverence or reflection than that, we’d better stop and ask ourselves the Peggy Lee question: Is that all there is? Tom Noel, romping through history with his column a week ago about Denver’s first Thanksgiving in 1859, mentioned the territorial governor’s proclamation for “appropriate observance of the day.” What did Gov. Samuel Medary mean?
Probably the same thing that President George Washington meant with his proclamations in the century before, and Gov. William Bradford with his in the century before that. The same thing President Lincoln would mean a few years later in summoning Americans for “a day of praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” And the same that Colorado’s founders would mean in placing upon the state seal “Nil Sine Numine,” nothing without God’s spirit, a few years later still.
Whether they know it or not, legislators gathering to represent us at the State Capitol have those words in their hand every time they grasp the ornate brass doorknobs, and behind their heart every time they sit in the official chairs. The seal is everywhere under the gold dome; earlier generations took its symbolism that seriously.
Our generation is more coolly detached about these things. We know better, or think we do. The detachment may come at a price, however. Whether it’s Congress and the General Assembly grappling with deficits and entitlements, educators perplexed over test scores, law enforcement nervous about jihadists, parents suspicious of pot, or all of us battling the recession, the reverential mindset has resources that the on-our-own mindset lacks.
A society where people believe that good things come their way as a result of being lucky or deserving is more vulnerable to hubris and overreach in easy times, discouragement and dissension in hard times. A society where people interpret life’s ups and downs in the context of blessings or lessons from some sort of purposeful higher Providence is going to have the advantage in steadiness, resiliency, and cohesion.
Pluralist Colorado has both kinds of people. The person next to you at dinner on Thursday may be of the opposite mindset from yours, and no harm done – you’ll still appreciate each other, still be grateful for each other and for the day. But grateful to whom? That’s the common vocabulary of faith we’re losing. That’s the frame of reference which is slipping further and further out of focus, for all our surface religiosity.
Thanksgiving is no longer the one day in 365 when a great majority of Americans rededicate ourselves as a nation under God, and we’re the poorer for it. There’s a perilous century ahead. Facing it as reverential stewards of “the blessings of liberty,” I like our chances. Swaggering ahead as a lucky land, exceptional and entitled, I’m not so sure.