America is a land of holiday obsessives. Every neighborhood has its spooktactular Halloween house, its front lawn occupied by ersatz headstones, its roof adorned with an animatronic black cat. Every office has its insufferably chipper Saint Patrick’s Day watchdog, relentlessly policing those who would dare forget to show up in green. There’s an entire industry dedicated to Christmas excess: Not only can you buy enough tree lights to illuminate a North Korean prison-camp perimeter, but you can hire someone to help you hang them for maximal yuletide effect. They say loneliness is at the root of the holiday-season blues, but I wonder if feelings of inadequacy aren’t the real explanation: Even if you have a special somebody in your life, is it really a December To Remember if you can’t afford to put a new car—adorned with a red bow—in his or her driveway?
Thanksgiving, our greatest holiday, evokes no such feelings. There are no gifts to worry about giving. There’s no annual slog of parties to get through—and no subtle competition for who can throw the best of them. The holiday lacks the mistletoe or kiss-at-midnight rituals that leave the unkissed feeling unloved. There’s little pressure to drink more or carouse later or otherwise engage in forced jollity. No one spends time worrying about costumes, let alone about making them alluring, which is a good thing because the concept of “slutty because it’s Thanksgiving” seems kind of disgusting. It’s ironic: This most uniquely American of holidays manages to resist the artisanification, commercialization, and competitization that characterize so much of our contemporary life.
Not that people haven’t tried. Each November, glossy food magazines cram mailboxes across the country touting ways to improve on old Aunt Marge’s mashed potatoes, or add new and interesting spices to the stuffing, or tune up your Friday-afternoon turkey sandwich. In general, the recipes look very attractive: The brulee’d pumpkin pie in this month’s Martha Stewart Living looks way better than what I would otherwise cook, and I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the harissa-whipped sweet potatoes prescribed by Food & Wine to the marshmallow-adorned variety consumed in many homes.
Now, there’s nothing wrong having nice stuff, or even new and different stuff, on Thanksgiving. One of the holiday’s charms is that it is so malleable. But expending too much effort seems kind of silly: The point of rustic fare is that it is hard to make deluxe—but also hard to completely bollix up. Obsess over the table arrangements for your New Year’s dinner and you look fancy. Do the same for Thanksgiving—Bon Appetit suggests making special gifts for guests—and you look absurd.
Which is why the biggest knock against Thanksgiving also seems kind of minor. Sure, the holiday is gluttonous, and the spectacle of an entire nation overeating together reinforces whatever anxieties we feel about our national corpulence. But in cultural terms, gorging on stuffing and then sacking out in front of the NFL seems downright Spartan compared to the baroque consumer rituals of the month ahead—or, for that matter, to a simple dinner with friends in an age when food has become not just a thing to eat, and not even just a thing to cook well, but a theater in which to display one’s political beliefs, cultural sophistication, and creative inclinations.
Any good holiday needs to have a few key elements. It should be inclusive. It should be genuine. It should have a meaning that everyone understands—but one that is flexible enough for anyone to appreciate. And it needs to have a basic organizing event.
Against that backdrop, most of our other holidays fall flat. The secular holidays’ meanings have been obscured by time (many people don’t know the difference between Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day) and the days themselves have no ritual events (yes, there are parades; no, you probably don’t go to them), which is why most people associate them with seasonal sales. Valentine’s Day leaves out vast swathes of the noncoupled; like St. Patrick’s Day, it also comes with a smarmy feeling of obligatory revelry. Halloween is great for kids, but adults find themselves making awkward calculations about workplace costumes. Easter, besides being off-limits to non-Christians, also features fairly lame rituals (jelly beans?) and can be ruined by bad weather: When a holiday’s symbolism involves springtime rebirth, the chilly rains that come with early-spring timing can really spoil things.
Christmas, our most maligned holiday, is actually pretty good by comparison. It has some nice music, a vague sense of generosity, a buildup to a central organizing event, and a winter-and-lights vibe that has helped secularize it. On the other hand, it also has an ugly feeling of consumer excess, a buildup so absurdly long as to render the big day anticlimactic, and, nowadays, an unbearably stupid culture war over that same secularization. New Year’s, too, has much to recommend it: The new calendar year can represent a fresh start for just about anyone, and the build-up is something you can literally set your clock by. It’s just too bad that December 31’s feeling of mandatory joyousness is even more pronounced than March 17’s. That leaves the Fourth of July. Americans should feel proud of our independence day, with its barbecues building up to its fireworks displays, all with a low-key vibe that’s vastly less jingoistic than those of many other countries. The only problem is that every country has a national day.
The fourth Thursday in November, though, is all ours. And it’s a holiday to be proud of: Humble without being morose, generous without being opulent, old without being irrelevant, intimate but also all about community. At a time of income inequality, the feast that is its central organizing event is made of ingredients that are democratic. In an era of suspicion, it celebrates immigrants. During a period of polarization, it’s something we all agree on. It can be religious if you want, but it doesn’t have to be: Thank the almighty, thank your friends, thank your lucky stars—it’s all good. It can be deeply traditional if you want, but it also doesn’t have to be: As a tale of newcomers interacting with a new land, it almost begs to be adulterated. Just like America. Historians may call its creation story a fairy tale, but it still speaks to our better angels. So put aside, for a minute, your griping about how the mall elevators have been playing cheesy Christmas jingles since Halloween. There’s still something to be grateful for: Thanksgiving is coming.
Michael Schaffer is editorial director at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelschaffer.