Here's a conversation starter for Thanksgiving

A campaign called Giving Tuesday rolls into its second successful year to curb the commercialism of the Thanksgiving holiday season with a day of generosity. It would make Ben Franklin smile.

AP Photo
Charles Bandy of Feeding South Florida organizes bags of produce in West Park, Fla., to be distributed to residents in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The presumed origin of the American Thanksgiving – a Pilgrim-Indian feast of gratitude later turned into a holiday by Lincoln – has at least one competing historical narrative. And it is a compelling one these days, given how much the whole holiday season has become heavily gravied with bargain-shopping commercialism.

In 1785, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote his own account of the first Thanksgiving. He claims one of the early settlers, “a farmer of plain sense,” complained about New England having too many days set aside for fasting and prayers of petition, in which people “sought relief from heaven” and “kept their minds gloomy” about their personal wants. The farmer suggested instead a day to reflect on how much the people already enjoy nature’s abundance, the rewards of their labors, and the enjoyment of liberty.

“It would be more becoming the gratitude they ow’d to the divine being,” the farmer allegedly reasoned, “if instead of a fast they should proclaim a thanksgiving.” And so, according to Franklin, such a day became “constantly ordered and religiously observed.”

Thanksgiving can still indeed be a day of reflection for the good already received – despite a mushrooming focus on fancy feasting, TV football, and the Black Friday sales that now start on Thursday. But it will take some fixing along with the fixin’s, much like how that fabled farmer helped change the course of holiday history.

Fortunately, such a fix started last year, and it’s one that seems destined to grow. It is a nationwide campaign called Giving Tuesday, which aims to turn every Tuesday after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday into a day of giving.

The giving can be of time, money, or things. But the point is to roll back the material consumerism of the holiday season and encourage families and friends who gather for Thanksgiving to start talking about giving. Such a dinner-table conversation might even leave a lasting impression on the next generation.

Last year, the first Giving Tuesday – aka #GivingTuesday for Twitterites – racked up some impressive numbers. More than $10 million was pledged to more than 2,000 nonprofits. Websites that help guide people on how to donate, such as Network for Good and Universal Giving, saw big spikes that day. For this year’s event on Dec. 3, many more groups, from companies to whole cities, hope to turn Giving Tuesday into as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey.

The idea was incubated at New York City’s 92nd Street Y but has since taken on a life of its own, even a competitive one. Baltimore is trying to outdo other cities and become known as the “most generous city in America.” Last year, it saw more than $2 million given to good causes. The goal this year is $5 million.

Giving Tuesday is also a reminder that contributing to others shouldn’t be used mainly as a tax write-off. Sending a check to a charity on Dec. 31 doesn’t always necessarily fit the holiday spirit.

A designated giving day can have many positive results. It shows Americans can be united behind something – and united by something larger than themselves. It reminds those who don’t think they can make a difference that they can.

Americans, as the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted, set up institutions and habits to remind themselves that “it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures.” Today, the United States remains one of the world’s most-giving countries. Or, as Tocqueville wrote, the American “heart readily leans to the side of kindness.”

Just having a day to reflect on that fact alone with a spirit of gratitude is worth trying to keep the purity of this holiday. We can thank a plain-sense farmer, or at least Ben Franklin, for reminding us of that.

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