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Originally published Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM


Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Pass the gratitude, please

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. But there is something almost un-American about it. It is a day opposed to striving, to getting...

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. But there is something almost un-American about it. It is a day opposed to striving, to getting more. Time to stop adding up the numbers on the scorecard of life. We freeze in place, look at our situation and give thanks for whatever is there.

The Wall Street Journal once featured some sob stories about failed dot-com entrepreneurs. People still in their 20s and 30s spoke painfully of their disappointments. They had planned to make many millions on their Internet startups. But the bottom fell out of the dot-com market before they could pile up the first seven figures.

The would-be tycoons discussed the sacrifices they had made in their quest for New Economy gold. One 29-year-old had accepted a job at an Internet firm that paid "only" $80,000 a year. His business-school classmates were averaging $120,000 at traditional firms. Some talked of working outrageously long hours. Eighty hours a week was common. When their dot-com closed its doors, they had no personal life to go back to.

These young people could have used some Thanksgiving spirit. Thanksgiving is a full-glass holiday. It is not a time to bemoan what one could have had. To be healthy, educated and living in America is to have one's cup running over.

Our culture does not encourage contentment with what we already possess. This is the land of the upgrade. One can always do better, be it with house or spouse. When money is the measurement, the competitive struggle can never end without acknowledging some kind of defeat. Everyone other than Bill Gates has someone who is ahead.

Messages in the media continually tweak Americans' innate sense of inadequacy. Our folk hero, after all, is the college dropout who sells his Internet company for half a billion by the age of 24. How is a middle-aged guy making $38,000 a year supposed to feel about that?

Some messages even push us to compete against family members. A few years ago, an investment company ran a magazine advertisement showing a young woman sitting pensively on a front porch. "Your grandfather did better than his father," it read. "Your father did better than his father. Are you prepared to carry on the tradition?"

Note the use of the respectable word "tradition." This serves as a cover for what is really a call for intergenerational competition. The needle in the neck is the suggestion that failure to amass more wealth than Dad is a smudge on the family's honor.

Such thinking would have been wholly foreign to the Pilgrims who celebrated the "First Thanksgiving." The events leading up to that dinner help us understand the original meaning of the observance.

The Pilgrims were Puritans who had seceded from the Church of England. Their motive in coming to the North American woods was to worship as they chose. Their ship, the Mayflower, landed at what was to become Plymouth, Mass., on Dec. 16, 1620.

Mid-December is an awful time to start setting up shop in the New England wilderness. Disease immediately carried off more than half of the 102 colonists. They were buried on Coles Hill, right across the street from Plymouth Rock. (Scholars now believe that the Mayflower really did land there.) Without the help of friendly Indians, the colony would have vanished by spring.

In 1625, the colony's governor, William Bradford, wrote that the Pilgrims "never felt the sweetness of the country till this year." But that didn't stop them from giving thanks four years earlier.

The "First Thanksgiving" was held in the autumn of 1621. The purpose was not to celebrate the good life, but to celebrate their staying alive. The Wampanoag Indians shared in the feast.

By the 1830s, America was already a bustling land of fortune-building and otherwise improving one's material lot. Intellectuals of the day looked back nostalgically at the Puritan concern with unworldly matters. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for one, spoke of their religious orientation as "an antidote to the spirit of commerce and economy."

Thanksgiving is a throwback to that misty past. It requires a Zen-like acceptance of the present. Gratitude is the order of the day. And there's no need for a thing more.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

2007, The Providence Journal Co.

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