Of all the holidays in the secular calendar perhaps Thanksgiving is the most potentially subversive. As far as I know there is no secular protest against Thanksgiving like there is with Christmas. Maybe a vegan or two who stand up for the turkey. On the other hand, there is no Christian wringing of hands at the commercialism of Thanksgiving the way there is at Christmas despite the fact that ‘thanksgiving’ is so much a part of the Christian vocabulary and indeed so much a part of the central act of Christian worship, the Holy Eucharist.
St. Thomas suggests a reason for this rare case of Christian-secular bi-partisanship. Gratitude is a natural or human virtue, which is a special part of justice. The authority which St. Thomas invokes for this, interestingly enough, is not the Bible or a Church Father but a pagan, Cicero. Justice is “the habit whereby one with steadfast and enduring will renders to others what it due them.” So gratitude is a debt to be paid. We owe thanks to our parents for begetting us and raising us; to those excelling in dignity from whom general favors proceed, wisdom, security, inspiration and so forth; to benefactors, from whom we have received particular and private favors, on account of which we are under particular obligation to them. It is not simply that we ought to be thankful but justice compels us to be grateful; we naturally want to be grateful.
Like all natural things, motion, cause, dependence, imperfection, design, the natural urge to be grateful inevitably raises the question of God. Even though naturally we want to be grateful, we have a sense that once we have thanked our parents, our heroes and our benefactors, we are not done with giving thanks. St. Thomas says in fact that gratitude consists not only in thanking those who are obligated to help us or those who have accidentally helped us but those who without an obligation have helped us. This, we might say, is what men call God, strictly speaking the only benefactor who helps us without being obliged to do so.
Our thanks to God is never paid up because the repayment of favors should be appropriate to the favor bestowed, to the person bestowing it, and to its value to the person receiving it. St. Paul sought to appeal to the pagans in Athens by pointing that one of their poets had already described God as “He in whom we move and live and have our being”. That is a big bill, too big a bill for us to pray. But we still want to pay it.
My advice to atheists and secularists is boycott Thanksgiving. Who knows what it can lead to!