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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Thanksgiving: more gravy, less god

Published: November 16, 2012
Section: Opinions

I am a big fan of Thanksgiving. I love the food, spending time with my family and the well-deserved break from classes, papers, endless midterms and premature studying for finals. But when critics attacked the president this week for not mentioning God in his Thanksgiving address, I sat down and thought about what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving.

The president posted his yearly address online, mentioning how he would be spending the holiday eating delicious food, watching football and spending time reflecting on why he is thankful. On Fox News Radio, host Todd Starnes attacked the president for his lack of reference to religion in his address. Starnes said, “His remarks were void of any religious references although Thanksgiving is a holiday traditionally steeped in giving thanks and praise to God.”

In my previous experience with the holiday, including making hand turkeys in Sunday school and wearing headdresses and Puritan caps in kindergarten, I never considered the grace of God to play any part in my Thanksgiving. I have never gone to church on the 24th and I have never taken time to thank God for my turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries and gravy. That honor is left for my father, the head chef. It surprised me to hear Starnes whining about a lack of religion on a holiday that historically celebrates survival.

The story of Thanksgiving, for those of us who may have forgotten as we got caught up in the Black Friday deals and leftover turkey recipes, is short and sweet. In 1621 the Pilgrims came to America and landed at Plymouth Rock, where they proceeded to fail at every task they attempted. They couldn’t grow their own crops, forage for berries, or stay warm in the cold Northeastern winters. On their shivering deathbeds, the Native American Wampanoag tribal leader, Squanto, took pity on the starving pilgrims. Squanto and his tribe taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, take sap from maple trees, catch fish in rivers, avoid poisonous plants and survive the devastatingly cold winter.

Pilgrim journals from the time mention that without the help of the Wampanoag, the entire colony would have perished. Only half of the colony survived the winter to the first harvest. After this successful crop, Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving and the colony feasted for three days.

Squanto is attributed with helping the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe that would endure for more than 50 years and demonstrate one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans. To celebrate Thanksgiving, we should not only celebrate life and family, but also take a lesson from the early settlers and show kindness and respect to those people and cultures with which we are not familiar. In his own way, Obama did just that in his address. He didn’t bring up God, because he understands that not every American believes in God. To mention religion, and single out non-believers, would alienate a country that needs to come together and understand respect for a point of view that is different from their own. The president made the right call. He understands that our country is no longer a monoculture of Christian beliefs. America is not just a place for Christians seeking safety and freedom from oppressive British rule. Those freedoms of property and religion belong to all who seek a place to call their own, without danger or persecution for what they believe. And Thanksgiving is a celebration of those rights.

Thanksgiving is, overall, a celebration of life. It is the joy of surviving another hard year, being surrounded by people you love. It is being thankful for the ability to listen to your uncle as he tells you how many points he earned in Angry Birds the week before, and your grandfather as he mutters about when he was a boy they shot their own turkey. It’s another chance to be one-upped by your cousins, asked hundreds of times what you want to do after you finish college and eat until you’re sick. The Puritan settlers were just happy to be alive. We should all be thankful for a few days with the people we love and the time to relax.

After Fox News pundits had a field day with Obama’s lack of religion, John Stewart from The Daily Show decided to share his thoughts. Stewart remarked that Fox was “turning Thanksgiving into another type of Christian persecution culture war.” Stewart added that he didn’t see Obama’s lack of religious reference to be a problem. And in the end, he also referenced the need to unwind. “I’ll give you the War on Christmas,” he said. “But this is all reform Jews have left … It’s the one holiday where everyone can just relax.”

So whether you’re Jewish or not, take this Thanksgiving to be thankful for what you have and the people around you. If you want to thank God for your meal, go ahead. Just try to leave the president, the government and Fox News out of it.