IT'S the perfect holiday -- on paper. Once a year we are authorized, indeed urged, to become a nation of psalmists for a day -- making joyful noises, singing and skipping upon the mountains. To give thanks, to savor one's blessings, is an act that ought to clarify through delight the deepest meaning of one's life. Yet, after three centuries of practice, we seem to be clearer about how we celebrate than what we celebrate. If children of the '80s were given a multiple-choice test on Thanksgiving, they might have difficulty selecting an answer to complete this sentence: Thanksgiving is (a) a holiday celebrated by watching football on TV; (b) a feast day devoted to gobbling turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, then groaning, ``Oh boy -- am I stuffed!''; (c) an occasion for a parade down New York's Fifth Avenue, featuring Mickey Mouse and other national totems. Has any holiday ever been so confused from the start?

And here's a multiple-choice test to stump '80s adults: Thanksgiving originated as (a) a celebration of the harvest; (b) a peace ceremony with the Indians; (c) a day to acknowledge ``the continuance of the Happiness and Liberty, which have been secured to us by His Majesty's illustrious House,'' as one royal governor of Massachusetts proclaimed.

The historian's answer would have to be: all of the above -- and none -- leaving a celebrant to figure out how to get behind all the distractions that hang over Thanksgiving like crepe-paper party decorations, suitable for almost any old holiday. Only as a last resort, it seems, does Thanksgiving get explained as (d) a truly holy holiday set aside for prayer.

In the course of those three centuries, Thanksgiving Day has been manipulated to the oddest uses. In Colonial times it was turned into an occasion to drill the militia. In frontier days it became an excuse for a turkey shoot.

For more than a century, social workers have employed Thanksgiving to call attention to the ``needy.'' Oxfam, setting aside the Thursday before Thanksgiving as a fast day, summoned public conscience to world hunger. At the same time, department stores key on Thanksgiving to kick off the Christmas sales season. There is no purpose, trivial or ideal, to which this durable holiday has not been directed. And yet, through all the confusion of this day that has us down on our knees, simultaneously shouting `` Whoopee!'' some small, pure impulse persists.

Forget the power strutted so flamboyantly on football fields and in parades; forget the table groaning under the horn of too much plenty -- forget all the varieties of power and wealth that can end up making Thanksgiving celebrants feel poor and helpless. Thanksgiving is still the closest self-reliant Americans come to acknowledging that life's harvests are not just our doing, not just our work, but in one way or another an act of grace.

This acknowledgment, even if only one silent moment surrounded by a hundred frantic gestures, makes Thanksgiving an indispensable holiday, and never more so than in 1985.

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