Thanksgiving: A Civil Religious Celebration

In a cultural environment where anything goes, the use of the words religion/religious makes people uneasy. The reason is that a majority of people believe that we live in a predominantly secular culture without the need of any moral constraints or guidelines. This type of mindset promotes the perception that abiding to any ethic standard would infringe on an individual’s civil rights. This uneasiness with civility and religion is oblivious to the fact that our contemporary world is dominated by popular cults that are sectarian, regressive and divisive.

Consequently some clarification is needed to explain the nature of civil religion, and more specifically the meaning of religion.

It comes from the Roman religio. It relates to the proper rituals and ceremonies dedicated to the gods performed by the mortals in order to maintain the beneficial order and prosperity of the city-zens of Rome.

Religio is foremost civil and civic, and implicitly political. It reflects the power of the gods being the eternal representatives of hierarchy embodied by the mortal rulers of Rome.

As a side note, the word religion is not used in the Old Testament. And the few times the word appears, it relates to foreign beliefs systems considered heathen or pagan. It does not show up in the synoptic Gospels. The word is only used in later epistles influenced by the predominant Roman culture. What the Bible reveals is faith in the presence of the almighty who communicates with individuals whom he sets apart to instruct, to lead, to prophetize and govern God’s chosen people. Making sure they abide with the covenant he made with them and the commandments he gave them.

In the US Thanksgiving is a national holiday. A similar holiday is celebrated in many other countries on various dates. It is a day set apart on the Roman calendar we still use today, as feriae or “holy days”. Citizens are off work and most institutions and commercial activity is kept to a minimum. Incidentally, the act of “setting apart” is a specific attribute of what is defined as “sacred” and “holy”.

The early Settlers were mostly Puritans and Protestants. As such they inaugurated a faith based holiday of Thanksgiving giving thanks for their harvest. In the course of time the celebration became more secular and civic in function.

Today, Thanksgiving is the occasion to share and give thanks for a harvest made with modern means of production and distribution. It is a special a day where a great number of people travel to congregate with family, friends and strangers, for the purpose of sharing a meal.

Commensality, or the fellowship at the table sharing a meal, resonates with people from varied cultures throughout history as a ritual that binds a group together. As such Thanksgiving connects each and every group together in a civic union celebrated nationwide. It is a civil religious feast to give thanks for the material benefits and security shared by the citizens.

Regardless of the popular misconceptions of what is religion or religious, Thanksgiving is a civil religious holiday. It is a ritual that has been celebrated throughout history by the American people to give thanks for a harvest that symbolizes an American political Union.

The feeling we call religious

And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical out-crying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is the simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and expanding universe, all bound together by elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

John Steinbeck
The Log from the Sea of Cortez

I couldn’t express myself better, except for the fact that Jesus, St. Augustine and St. Francis were not concerned with intellectual or scientific wonderment of Reality but were beings that embodied a spiritual love of the world. And Jesus is set apart from other saints, as a unique example of a divine calling that opens the door for any human being to realize we all share in the presence of One God, each individual connected to all other individuals as One Spiritual Reality. This revelation is open to anyone who is ready to listen to his or her calling of love.

What makes Jesus unique is the relationship he had with God. It was so intimate that he referred to God as his father. Jesus did not only reveal his humanity and divinity but his deep relation with history. A mysterious underlying power that is beyond the scope of human understanding. And although the only proof we have of Jesus’ existence is that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. His Body of faithful Christians who without the help of a state and the service of an army took over Rome and its empire and spread his Word to known world.