Why do we so love the week that begins today?
As family members travel toward home, as table linens are brought out of the closet, as the food shopping gets done, as the mind drifts toward life's bounties, as seasonal festivity arrives without the dark burdens of December -- "Happy Thanksgiving" seems more than a rote greeting. Low key, good feeling defines the country for a brief time, as Americans spontaneously re enact a ritual meal that makes us one. Our private celebration has public meaning.
The most particular of founding myths -- an ad-hoc feast of English Puritans, clinging to the ledge of an unknown continent; a tale of wild turkey and cornbread, cranberries, Pilgrim hats, and Miles Standish -- has become a source of expansive communal identity down through the years. A narrow ethnic and religious tradition opened wide, enabling a magnificent diversity of immigrant successors to claim a place beside those first settlers, a claim to peoplehood itself.
One sees this in the rampant joy with which schoolchildren annually take to the Thanksgiving re enactments, and the energetic delight with which shopkeepers festoon their windows. We are all English Puritans for a moment, all survivors of that first rough year, all beneficiaries of the unexpected generosity of the Wampanoags, all inclined, therefore, to the expression of gratitude -- whether to a named deity or not. Thanksgiving nicely evolved into a secular sacrament of inclusion, as holy for the whole nation as it can be for each family. Rarely do the public and private realms so reflect and enhance one another.
But the Thanksgiving story is not what it was. There was a time when Americans could relate the saga of that heroic arrival in the New World with celebratory naiveté. Because the English settlers' Biblical religion was a steady point of reference, their story took form as a self-consciously constructed replay of Exodus: a harried people being brought safely through a threatening body of water (the storm-tossed Atlantic instead of the miraculously parted Red Sea), being ushered into a promised land rife with berries and wildlife (if not milk and honey).
To aim at the creation of a City on a Hill, John Winthrop's new Jerusalem, is to do nothing less than bring heaven to earth.
When a nation's founding myth follows such contours, a sense of moral election follows, too -- America as a chosen people, set apart from all others. America as uniquely blessed, uniquely commissioned to be an instrument of divine sovereignty, which undergirds our hyper sovereignty to this day.
In fact, the New World contained within it all that made the Old World tragic, but the New World thought otherwise. Virtuous intent anchored self-conception, and a nation so defined took its goodness for granted.
But what is Exodus without Genesis? Bible stories correct each other, so where there is deliverance out of Egypt, there is also banishment from Eden; the parting of the sea, but also the Flood; the City on a Hill, but also the tower of Babel. There is virtue, in the Bible, and there is sin. But in the American scriptures, such connections tended to get lost. "Manifest destiny" could seem a mandate from above, entirely unrelated to the imperialist impulses of less worthy nations, yet it was identical.
In the Biblical tradition, political assumptions must withstand the prophetic challenge; even King David had his Nathan. But in the United States, history itself has played that prophetic role. We children of the Pilgrims learned the hard way. The fate of the Wampanoag, and then of Africans, could not forever be denied. From the seizure of Mexican territories in the 19th century to the looting of Latin America in the 20th, to the grievously flawed policies of today -- the chosen people, American style, have repeatedly been revealed to be like everybody else. The United States, too, is bound by the human condition. Thanksgiving cannot be celebrated, that is, as the feast of national exception.
That is the good news. After all, the rituals of this week highlight the dignity of what is ordinary. We take special trouble to prepare the table, but meeting there is the most mundane of activities. Loving families are defined by their full knowledge of one another (good, bad, ugly), and among friends, no one is morally superior. Indeed, we imperfect creatures can only feel truly at home in the company of the imperfect.
Our nation, too, may now recognize that. Such personal and political mutuality is the condition of happiness near, and hope for peace afar.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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