BOGUE: The most wonderful time of the year

Of all the major holidays, Thanksgiving imparts the best message

It’s once again that awkward and exciting time of year. We’ve just finished a solid three days of Halloween festivities, Thanksgiving calls longingly to our weary hearts and Christmas is suddenly a thing again. The Wal-Mart on Route 29 has already placed a Christmas tree near the front doors to woo the seasonal shopaholics. With so much festive spirit in the air, it’s time to resurface that perennial debate: which holiday is the best? Is it the raucous debauchery of Halloween? The joy of Thanksgiving? The timelessness of Christmas?

Despite the merits of each, I submit to you that we should discriminate between holidays on the basis of their motivations; that is, does the holiday stem from an admirable or virtuous desire, or does it celebrate something that perhaps ought not to be celebrated? It’s a light-hearted debate, but a useful reflection nonetheless, especially when we consider how holidays represent and help to shape the values of our society. Under these criteria, Thanksgiving emerges as the best in the pack.

The most important argument I can put before you is simply that Thanksgiving is the only holiday among the full menu of options that concerns itself solely with fellowship and, well, giving thanks. The point of the holiday is to spend time with one’s family, to sit around a fireplace or a dinner table and eat good food, drink bone-warming spirits and remember why we love each other. The story that inspires it — however embellished or inaccurate it may be — is a beautiful one: a tale of human cooperation, strong ties of love and gratitude and finding friends in unexpected places. We don’t have to start opining on the true history of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans (it’s not pretty) to appreciate what Thanksgiving stands for.

Devoting a day to reflecting on the abundance we enjoy and the blessings that surround us is an ennobling venture. Ideally, yes, we should attempt to do this every day; but our busy lives and our selfish natures often prevent such saintlike humility. A single day of gratefulness is a good place to start. Other than the expectation of delicious food and the anticipation of good times spent with family, there is nothing to selfishly entice us about Thanksgiving. The hope is that this holiday will inspire us to take the love and gratitude we receive and go out in the world to give to those who have not and to love those who are unloved. In short, we love Thanksgiving for all the right reasons: familial togetherness, nourishment of our bodies and souls and a period of reflection on the bounty that we enjoy.

While Christmas shares many of these attributes, it is nonetheless tainted. Our love for Christmas was born from a desire to receive gifts. As children, we come to anticipate Christmas morning with such fervor not because we are jubilant at the prospect of more time together with the family, or because we can’t wait to see how other people respond to what we have given them — if we have even bought presents for people — but rather because we want to know what has been given to us. Need I explain further? It’s a fundamentally selfish holiday. Now, I fully appreciate the valiant efforts that we have made to make Christmas about other, nobler ideas: giving gifts to others, giving to those in need or celebrating family. I like these things. But there is no denying that Christmas as it is celebrated in America — that is, the predominantly secular version of Santa and elves and the Grinch — would not survive if it didn’t feed off of the desire to receive gifts from others. When we rationalize that we grow out of such selfish motives — that eagerly receiving gifts is the domain of children — we are lying to ourselves. We all want presents. And that’s the heart of Christmas. Thanksgiving, because it lacks such a selfish underlying motive, celebrates something we truly ought to celebrate.

For similar reasons, Halloween fails to measure up. The selfish motives are less potent, perhaps, because trick-or-treating does not satisfy our egocentric desires so much as it satisfies our gluttony. Trust me, I’m all for gluttony, especially of the candy variety. But there’s nothing to celebrate about it. It’s a caving-in rather than a rising-above. Like Christmas, Halloween has redeeming aspects: the innocent fun of dressing up in costumes, the spooky tales that get our hearts pounding, the community cohesion that occurs when little children run from door to door in their cute little fairy costumes and more. But less savory aspects accompany these positive ones, like the Halloween mischief that ruins cars, damages property and frustrates old folk. Unlike Christmas, Halloween doesn’t derive its lifeblood from our selfish desires. Yet it is inextricably linked to our gluttony, promotes mischief for the sake of mischief and lacks any truly virtuous underpinning. It’s just for fun.

Other mainstream holidays exist, of course, that would be worth examining. I think, however, you’ll find that the vast majority of them derive their value from suspect moral bases or lead to unwelcome actions on the part of holiday-goers. Thanksgiving, in contrast, emerges as the single most moral of the traditional American holidays, in its roots, its motives and its celebration. Holidays are not merely days off from work or a break from studying; they represent the values we choose to promote. As such, we should actually think carefully about which holidays we celebrate and why. Should we ban all holidays that wouldn’t pass Mother Teresa’s standards? Perhaps not. But we should emphasize those that stand for values like gratitude, fellowship and sacrifice while recognizing the dark underbelly of some of our most cherished traditions.

Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

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