This is the most important Thanksgiving of your life

We have an opportunity to celebrate the holiday in the truest sense of how it was intended

Freedom from Want 2020.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

I am the Ebenezer Scrooge of Thanksgiving. The Grinch, with a heart (or stomach?) two sizes too small. I get no thrills from turkey, no glee from gravy — I'll even pass on potatoes, if I'm being honest. The White House turkey pardon? Morbid. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? Fine I guess, if you like lip syncing. And while I love my family, I don't need a contrived dinner conversation to prompt me to acknowledge that I'm thankful for them.

But that was all … before.

This is, without a doubt, the most important Thanksgiving of my life. It's also the most important Thanksgiving of your life. Not because anyone's bringing home a partner to meet the family for the first time; or because you have any reason to be deeply invested in the outcome of the game between the Lions and the Texans; or even because, due to a combination of luck and precautions and good health, you get to celebrate Thanksgiving this year while a quarter of a million Americans who should have, will not.

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No, this is the most important Thanksgiving of our lives because it is, for the first time, an opportunity to celebrate the holiday in the truest sense of how it was intended.

As millions of Americans have now learned, celebrating Thanksgiving does not need to involve stuffing or wishbones or even gathering multiple generations of family around a decorative autumnal centerpiece. There are those, though, who misunderstand the holiday and mistakenly believe physical proximity to one another is what is of the utmost importance during this season. For such families, sharing food under one roof eclipses all else: science, responsibility toward one's community, appreciation for all the health-care workers who are nine months into a pandemic and whose pleas to take this virus seriously are mocked by such gatherings. "For many people, this is their final Thanksgiving, believe it or not," Scott Atlas, one of President Trump's more controversial COVID-19 advisers, told Fox News earlier this month, advocating for inviting elderly relatives to celebrations — but without hearing the dark flip side of his own words. For many people, this will be their final Thanksgiving because they've been included.

But Thanksgiving was never really intended to be about eating close enough to your grandmother to ask her to pass the bread rolls. In truth, the greatest Thanksgiving proclamations have all been about persevering through the toughest challenges this country has faced. George Washington's original proclamation in 1789, while the country was still in its infancy, called for "a day of thanksgiving and prayer" by the American people to acknowledge the "opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness." Abraham Lincoln, "in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity" in 1863, expressed gratitude for the country's "bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come." And though Woodrow Wilson made no overt mention of the raging influenza, he described in 1918 a "special and moving cause to be grateful and to rejoice": the end of the first World War, which "has brought us, not peace alone, but the confident promise of a new day as well."

The most admirable Thanksgivings in our national history, then, have been the ones during or immediately following times when there had seemed little to be thankful for. In 2020, too, we must reach deeper for gratitude than for the usual low-hanging fruit of being here with all of you. It's easier said than done; I'm quick to feel resentful and angry about what I've been cheated of, the goals and trips and celebrations I've had to put aside for the past nine months. I've missed my grandparents' anniversary, my aunt's 80th birthday, and hugging my grandma after her chemotherapy; I will not see my brothers or sister on Thanksgiving, despite being within driving distance of them; I will not visit my mother for Christmas, further extending the longest period I've gone without seeing her since I was born. And while I can acknowledge my own privilege in not having lost anyone this year, the injustice of the pandemic and the gross mismanagement by our leaders does not put me in the mood to come up with reasons to make myself feel good about my life right now.

This Thanksgiving should have been my favorite, the one that let me off the hook of any obligations with a convenient excuse. But it took losing the holiday to realize I've had it all wrong. Thanksgiving, of course, is not about the ugly sweaters or what's on the table. It's not even really about being grateful for the simple things, like family and home and health. It's about being grateful even when it isn't easy, to dig deeper when appreciation starts to get hard. This year, notice the complete strangers who wear masks to protect you; the cashiers who risk their own health to show up for work so the rest of us can make small-batch Thanksgiving dinners; and the nurses who hold the hands of dying loved ones, even if, by fortune, those loved ones haven't been your own.

There will, in all likelihood, only be one Thanksgiving like this in our lifetimes. But don't just endure this weekend. Grow from it. Cherish that you have something, or someone, to miss, and something to look forward to next year.

And maybe, if enough of us recognize the importance of this Thanksgiving, we'll one day look back on this year as being worthy of getting counted among those proclamations of yore. Our "special and moving cause to be grateful and to rejoice" will be that, against the tides of selfishness and entitlement, flippancy and ignorance, many of us still sacrificed seeing each other to protect each other.

The thought makes this Thanksgiving Grinch's heart grow three sizes bigger already.

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