Gratitudinal, or what to say on a holiday about which everything interesting, and lots that's not, has already been said
Nov 22, 2018 | 6:00 AM
As our national discourse plunges daily toward new lows of debasement, it would be tempting to offer up a Thanksgiving editorial calling on the nation to return to decency, wholesomeness and all else that the holiday implies. But we're figuring you're about as stuffed with politics as you're about to be with turkey, so instead we offer the soothing balm of tradition and reminiscence for Thanksgivings past. As has been our practice, we offer an updated version of the brilliant work of a former colleague who, as is the way of editorials, remains nameless and has probably by now forgotten he wrote this — or will at least try to deny it.
A Notes and Comment column The Sun ran in 1970 began this way: "We always enjoy reading Presidential Proclamations on Thanksgiving. These are required by Section 6103 of Title 5 of the United States Code. Every November, some writer on the White House Staff must produce something new about Thanksgiving. It is not easy. We know because we have to do the same thing, sort of — produce an annual editorial about the subject with something new in it. That's the corporate or institutional or editorial 'we, ' by the way. Like presidential speechwriters, we editorial writers are an anonymous and nonpersonal species. No one will ever know who the writer was who produced Proclamation 4201 for President Nixon, or what his true feelings are on the subject of Thanksgiving."
That's more or less the perfect summation, the perfect comment on the comment. The first Thanksgiving was 397 years ago, and, believe us, finding something to say — and on top of that, something appropriate for a serious newspaper — doesn't get any easier. The chief Thanksgiving editorial 48 years ago talked about the Puritans' practice of holding a day of fasting and humiliation as well as one of feasting and thanksgiving. It alluded to the troubles afflicting the nation back in those Vietnam days, including the assassinations of the 1960s, which must still have seemed fresh. It ended:
"To approach Thanksgiving in anything akin to the old-time spirit is to recognize how fragile are our civilizing influences, how buffeted the ties that bind each to the other. It is a day for humility as well as feasting as we count the good things that have come our way in 1970."
Well, editorial writers are always trying to load some additional meaning onto Thanksgiving, like humility. It gives them something else to write about, for one thing. The problem is that the classic Thanksgiving editorial reminds readers how much they have to give thanks for, and how many others there are who are not as fortunate — but you knew that already, didn't you? (In case not, please check out another editorial page annual tradition, the day-before-Thanksgiving editorial about hunger, which is probably wrapping your turkey innards as we speak.)
In 1954, The Sun editorial contented itself with being outraged over the detention of 13 Americans by the Communist Chinese, the theme being, theirs is not going to be a happy holiday. A fair point, but kind of a stretch, nonetheless. Two years later, The Sun tackled the editorial self-evidentness of Thanksgiving head-on:
"There are two elements in a Thanksgiving. One is an expression of gratitude for blessings received. The other should be an expression of a sense of responsibility for those not equally blessed."
Now repeat that 397 times.
Speaking of staying on message, a delightful and extraordinarily lengthy editorial from 1898 went all over the lot and managed to regain its theme only at the last possible moment. The United States had just won a war with Spain and was taking on an overseas empire that we at The Sun clearly were alarmed about. Be sure to read the wonderful last "In the meantime" sentence.
"The United States have [sic] emerged from a war with a foreign power marvelously victorious in every direction. Members of thousands of families went into that war, and, in spite of mismanagement in camp and in field, many more of them returned to their homes than seemed probable at the outset of hostilities. ...
"The dangers of the peace, the terms of which our commissioners at Paris have just set forth, threaten more disastrous results than did the war itself. ... In the meantime The Sun hopes its readers and friends and the people generally will enjoy their family reunions today, made more delightful by dinner tables decorated with chrysanthemums and roasted turkeys, and all sorts of material comforts which make glad the heart of man and his countenance cheerful."
Phew! Made it! But just barely.
Some years, of course, are more susceptible to genuine feelings of thanksgiving than others. Abraham Lincoln began the tradition of an annual Thanksgiving Day in 1863, but we can't know what we of The Sun thought about it because the paper had been suspected of harboring Southern sympathies and spent the Civil War years under the thumb of the military authorities. The editorial space simply noted that a day of thanksgiving was to be held. (On the front page was the news that nearly 700 men had been conscripted into the Union army from the city's third, fourth and 10th wards, with less disruption than expected; the Holliday Street Theatre was presenting a popular comedy still remembered today, because it was to be the feature 15 months later at Ford's Theatre in Washington: "Our American Cousin.")
But by late 1865 the war at last was over. On Thanksgiving Day, which was Dec. 7 that year, The Sun could say what it pleased.
"The scourge of war, more terrible that [sic] famine, more desolating than pestilence, a war carried on through four long years of suffering and anguish, has been ended almost as suddenly as one of the hurricane storms of the tropics. ...
"The people are once more a reconciled people, once more a band of brothers called together by their rulers in accordance with a custom which has the sanction of fitness in the eyes of a Christian people, to give thanks to the Supreme Being for His boundless favors."
What humility was to 1970, reconciliation was to 1865. On the other hand (which people who don't read editorials imagine to be a favorite editorial turn of phrase), we like to think of the Teens and Twenties of the 20th century as the Phooey years. We at The Sun were quite content to rain on the national parade of self-satisfaction without getting all earnest about it.
In 1913 we rolled our eyes over well-fed citizens assuring poor people that they had much to be grateful for. Like what? we wanted to know. In 1928 we said nothing at all about Thanksgiving (take that!). In 1929, after the stock market crash but before it was quite clear where things were headed, the headline read, "This Day of Gratitude."
"The spirit of Thanksgiving seems to be present almost in inverse ratio to the blessings for which one is generally said to be grateful. From a spring celebration of bare survival after pitiless hardships, Thanksgiving has evolved to its present proportions, with a football game in every stadium and millions of family parties, starting with fruit cocktail and concluding with fruit, cheese, coffee, cordial and cigars.
"... A prosperous people finds it difficult to be grateful for the goodness of God without making it obvious that what is actually meant is the shrewdness of man."
It's interesting that the description of the dinner in the passage above skipped right over the turkey. Again, in 1930, when the economic plunge was all too obvious, The Sun ran no Thanksgiving editorial but did feature a cartoon by Edmund Duffy that showed a gaunt and worried-looking Uncle Sam, with a knife in one hand, bending over a turkey about the size of a house finch. It sat on a platter labeled "Republican prosperity."
Duffy's cartoon has relevance today. The anger and frustration of the working class in this country that came through loud and clear in the 2016 election remains undimmed. Whether the divided government that's set to take over in January will provide anything better than the desiccated bird in Duffy's rendering, we rather doubt. (Oops, sorry. We promised no politics. We can't help ourselves sometimes, but that's it. We promise.)
Still, if at the depths of the Depression in 1934 Franklin Delano Roosevelt could muster brave thoughts, we can do worse than to echo them: "During the past year we have been given courage and fortitude to meet the problems which have confronted us in our national life. Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality."