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“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is, to have a thankless child.” — King Lear

Perhaps Shakespeare should have rendered that bit about the serpent as “How common as a horse’s hoof” or some such. Children, in my experience, are not naturally grateful. They regard whatever blessings they receive as the normal course of events. You have to train them to say “Thank you,” and even then, there is a sad tendency to forget the blessing even as the words hang in the air, to move on to What’s Next. You have to threaten them with unspeakable horrors to get them to write thank-you notes. And no power on earth can make them grateful for food they don’t like, no matter how many starving Africans you may be tempted to invoke.

And, of course, thankless children grow up into thankless adults. It’s right there in the Bible, right after the part where Jesus heals ten lepers. “And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked Him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, ‘Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?’ ” Lepers. Their lives were ruined, until suddenly, they weren’t. But nine out of ten ex-lepers agreed: “What have you done for me lately?”

John Lanchester (or rather, one of his characters) put it neatly (and coldly) in his novel The Debt to Pleasure: “It has not, I think, been sufficiently stressed that gratitude does not exist; the term has come into being to describe an emotion of which ethics teaches us to demand the existence, for the purposes of moral algebra, of making the equations balance…in the space where ‘gratitude’ is routinely described as existing, there is instead a compound of duty, guilt, and most especially resentment; no action anywhere in the history of the world has ever been undertaken out of gratitude.”

I am not quite so chilled as Lanchester’s man, but I do think he is on to something. The Continental Congress proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1777, saying, “FOR AS MUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received…” Duty and obligation — with gratitude! George Washington, when he proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1789, began this way: “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits…” Duty and obedience — with gratitude! And Lincoln put it this way in 1863: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that [these gracious gifts from God] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.” The tone is gentler, but “fit and proper” is pretty much another way of saying “right and just,” no?

According to these Architects of Thanksgiving, gratitude is something we are obligated to have. But emotions are slippery things; they don’t always respond so well to obligation. (Often, they’re downright rebellious; this is why Frank Sinatra sounds very much as if he’s trying not to laugh when he sings that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Go listen; you can hear the smirk.) I think that’s why the Architects put duty first. That way, before thanksgiving is a question of gratitude, it is a question of justice. (Is it at all interesting that Aristotle doesn’t cover gratitude in his book on Ethics?) God gave, and now you owe Him. You should feel good about it — it was nice of God, and He didn’t have to do it, and life really is pretty fabulous these days, thanks (at least in part) to Him — but even if you don’t, the point stands.

Looking this over, I see I have performed a bit of intellectual sleight-of-hand on my own self, substituting “gratitude” for “thanks” in my attempt to revise the Bard. It’s the child who won’t give thanks when thanks are due that’s painful and vicious; gratitude never enters into it. But! Have another look at those proclamations — it’s God this and Providence that, and what about the fact that this most religious of countries has nevertheless managed to secularize a holiday as supremely theistic as Christmas? Here’s a claim: we don’t much care for obligation on our days off. Sure, Christians go to church on Christmas and Easter, but that’s because the church that invented them called them Holy Days of Obligation and put the fear of hell into people who didn’t get their ass to Mass. What did the guys behind Thanksgiving have to compete with that? (Well, actually, the nation’s birth and its endurance through a bloody Civil War. But still, that was, like, years ago. What have you done for me lately?)

At Christmas, we get around the God problem (and its attendant obligations) by invoking The Christmas Spirit™ of giving, which may or may not have anything to do with the baby Jesus. But what to do with Thanksgiving? It’s right there in the name: Thanks. Thanks are given to Someone; duty is a duty to Someone. How to keep God (and the thanks He is owed) out of our turkey and football and four-day weekend? Answer: call in gratitude! Gratitude, being an emotion — and therefore a slippery, slightly amorphous thing — can exist just fine without a specific object. Life is good. We did not make it so. Who did make it so is not all that important; the feeling remains, warm and fuzzy, like the post-turkey naps. Or, to take another, smaller-scale but still appropriate example: we may feel grateful to The Wife for making a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, but damned if we’re therefore obliged to do the dishes.

I’ll close by shifting holidays yet again, this time to New Year’s Day, 1994. I’m a junior in college, visiting a friend for the holidays. We’re both Catholics. We go to a party on New Year’s Eve. I wind up spilling the better part of my bottle of Maker’s Mark into the New Jersey snow, but I still get a fair amount inside me. And, of course, the evening lasts well past midnight. But before we go to bed, my friend turns to me with his impossible charm and arched eyebrows and says, “Mass at seven? It’ll be great.” I fight through my buzz and say yes, and you know what? It is great. Mind you, I don’t feel grateful while I’m there in the church. I feel tired and a little fuzzy. But what I’m doing seems to me fit and proper — giving thanks for the year gone by, imploring blessings for the year to come. It’s a sacrifice, offering the first fruits of the day before breakfast and a nap and about nine hours of bowl games. Grateful or no, it makes the New Year mean something.

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