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The Productive Meaning Of Thanksgiving

November 23, 2005

American homes on the fourth Thursday in November will fill with more than the aroma of turkey and pumpkin pie. Also in the air will be the joy at the start of the holiday season running from Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s. As temperatures turn cold outdoors, we'll warm ourselves inside and out with gatherings of friends and family, festivities, parties, and presents.
Inevitably, this season also gives rise to queries about the "true meaning" of this or that holiday, usually with complaints about the superficiality of the season. To these critics I say, "Stop being an ugly hair in the sweet potato casserole!"
Let's review just a few of the things that people traditionally do during the month starting with turkey-time. First, we travel, facing lots of crowded roads, airports, bus terminals, and train stations. Yes, it's a hassle, but isn't it great that if we live on the Atlantic seaboard, we can fly to see family on the Pacific coast in under six hours? Several centuries ago it took weeks to go from Massachusetts to Georgia, the original extent of the country, and months to go west to find the Promised Land—if you survived the journey. Separated families usually remained separated.
And you were lucky to have family members at all; life expectancy in the time of the Pilgrims was under 40. Infant mortality was extremely high. Today, most Americans can be expected to live to their late seventies. Modern medicine has worked wonders.
The center of Thanksgiving Day is a great feast. We can understand why. The Pilgrims were so pleased that they hadn't starved to death following their arrival in 1620 that even that often-dour lot saw it as an occasion for a party. Hunger and the threat, if not reality, of starvation were the rule through much of human history.
Remember, less than a year after the founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1607, only 46 of the 104 original colonists were left alive, most having perished from lack of food. No wonder this earlier settlement in North America did not inspire a holiday!
Of course, their real problem was political. The company that sponsored Jamestown made provisions for settlers to be fed from a common store. There was no incentive to be productive. But communism did not work. Gentlemen settlers spent their time hunting for gold; they found none. John Smith later instituted a new rule: those who do not work shall not eat. That created an incentive to produce food.
In free-market America today, we have so much food at such a low cost that obesity rather than emaciation is a health problem.
Which brings us to what we do the day after Thanksgiving and the month that follows: We shop! We crowd the malls to buy gifts for others—and usually a little something for ourselves. Yes, some people complain about commercialized holidays, but the whole purpose of fall harvest feasts throughout human history was to celebrate production. How wonderful that we can make our lives comfortable with attractive clothes and fun toys, consumer electronics and interesting books, movies and music, fine furniture and furnishings, to say nothing of tasty treats! And we can share our regard for those significant individuals in our lives with gifts of the same.
As to the "deeper" meaning of the holidays, that is found in the travel, family members, food, and stores full of goods. The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards.
So let's celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let's welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.