It’s about that time of year again. The leaves assume their scheduled outfit change, the Google Trends chart for “Pumpkin Spice Latte” has a massive spike, and people who work a 9-5 get a glimpse into the graveyard shift life when they leave work the first day after the time change and are greeted with pitch-black skies at 5:05 PM.
There’s a wealth of associations for the fall in our cultural lexicon, but few as distinctly American as Thanksgiving. Its history runs parallel to the history of European settlement in the continent, originating among early colonists celebrating the success of their undertakings. During the Revolutionary War, the provisional government issued a proclamation for a day of “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” following a major victory against the British in Saratoga. A similar proclamation came forth in 1789 directly after the adoption of the Constitution and another resulted upon the defeat of the 1795 Whiskey Rebellion. It became a national holiday to be celebrated annually in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in response to a proclamation issued by President Lincoln as part of a call for unity. And just as it evolved along with the nation, the nation’s culture has evolved along with it; for nearly as long as people have been playing American football, they’ve been playing games as a part of Thanksgiving Day.
Despite the religious nature of its origins, today the holiday is largely a secular one. The tradition of giving thanks to God in recognition of one’s good fortune eventually became a tradition of families expressing the things for which they are thankful around the dinner table before their feast. It’s certainly good to be mindful of one’s blessings, whether of divine or mundane origin, and to acknowledge the privilege of one’s station. But why should there be just one day for this?
There’s another national tradition, albeit one with a shorter pedigree, celebrated by this country. It’s one I happen to be observing at this very moment, and one I believe to be worthy of elevation. This tradition is the idea of civil service, of giving back to one’s community so that the benefits might be enjoyed by all. In a sense, the tradition of Thanksgiving has its roots in war, its characteristics having been shaped by two of the country’s major wars. My program grew out of a war of a different nature: President Johnson’s War on Poverty (arguably the more popular of the wars he waged).
A common theme among fellow newcomers at my AmeriCorps orientation was that idea of privilege: that we have been blessed with a degree of good fortune in life, and in commemoration of that seek to help others reach that same fortune. If giving thanks is an acknowledgement of privilege, civil service can be the response. This Thanksgiving, let’s complete the conversation and think about accompanying giving thanks by giving back.