Thanksgiving is the second, unofficial, national holiday of the United States of America - where Independence Day celebrates the founding of the American state, Thanksgiving celebrates the founding of the American nation. Based on a celebratory feast held jointly by English Puritan "Pilgrim" immigrants and native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts sometime in late September or early November of 1621, Thanksgiving is now celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Americans commonly commemorate this feast by joining together in extended family groups (which in the modern age often requires some travel) and eating a rich meal together. The centerpiece of this meal is traditionally turkey, which was present in abundance at the 1621 feast; ham, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes and yams would be anachronistic at the original gathering but are common in modern celebrations.

Harvest and autumn thanksgiving celebrations are common across time and cultures, so why does America celebrate this particular one? Well, aside from the fact that the 1621 feast was one of the first major events in America for the European settlers from whom, for better or worse, modern American society is descended, the story also represents several of the ideals by which America seeks to define itself. The Pilgrims, less than a year in the new world to which they fled from religious persecution, remind America of its immigrant heritage and its promise of a better, freer life, which has continued to attract immigrants throughout its history. Likewise, the Wampanoag, without whose assistance the settlers might well have not survived the year, call to mind the American tradition of charity and mutual aid. That the two groups could come together in unity to celebrate represents a cultural tolerance, inclusiveness, and even friendliness which, if imperfectly realized through American history, has generally remained a national ideal. Even the very nature of the celebration - religious, for it was, as the name suggests, a giving of thanks to the higher powers for the harvest and the blessings of the previous year, but at the same time inclusive and nondenominational, the Pilgrims a splinter group of the Church of England and the Wampanoag of an animist tradition - is reflective of a society that marries a strong sense of religion to a tradition of religious freedom, diversity, and harmony rather remarkable in the grand sweep of history.

Of course, this is not to say that as the national holiday, the meaning of Thanksgiving has remained static through the ages, for the nation itself has certainly not. Thanksgiving has always incorporated the American themes of bounty and plenty, the promise of which has drawn immigrants from the Pilgrims to the modern day, but with the technological, economic, and societal advances of the 20th century, these themes have evolved into an aggressive consumerism. As this consumerism became a larger and stronger element of the American national identity, a trend augmented by the nation's strong identification with capitalism in contrast to the communism of its "enemies" in the Cold War, Thanksgiving naturally began to accommodate and reflect it. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, held on the morning of the holiday, is watched on television by millions, who see what is in large part a procession of children's entertainment and advertising displays presented by major corporations in what is, after all, an elaborate promotion for that ultimate symbol of early consumer culture, the department store. A major feature of the parade is the Santa Claus float, which calls to mind the fact that the day after Thanksgiving, which while not a actual holiday is frequently given to workers as a day of vacation, is Black Friday, the "official" opening of the Christmas shopping season, a day wholly dedicated to consumption. Likewise, entertainment and leisure, both fundamental to a consumer culture, are represented in the many American football games televised in the afternoon and watched in comfort by (mostly male) Americans, stuffed with food and frequently drinking beer, drowsy and content.

Independence Day remains the official national holiday, while Thanksgiving was not officially set as a holiday at the national level until 1941. I personally believe that Thanksgiving should be formally elevated to share the spotlight with Independence Day. This would necessitate no changes to the holiday's treatment or celebration, and government meddling in this matter would in fact run counter to the spirit of Thanksgiving as the people's holiday, and while the latter's themes of freedom and liberty are important, there is no reason why they could not stand side-to-side with the more humanized themes of the former. In recognizing and formally identifying itself with these themes, I believe America would be projecting a positive image of itself that would resonate even with many of those at home and abroad who dislike the government and military with which Independence Day, as a "state" holiday, is strongly identified. Thanksgiving represents the true spirit of the American people, and deserves to be acknowledged as such.