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America's heartfelt holiday

THANKSGIVING is preferable to Christmas. No denominational strings are attached to this week's observance, to the benefit of those for whom the birth of Jesus Christ is an emblem of exclusion. Thanksgiving has not been taken hostage by the extravagance of gift-giving or the burdens of shopping. Built around the meal, the feast celebrates the exquisite tension between appetite and its satisfaction. Honoring the turning of the year, it is a first pushing back against winter's cold darkness with the warmth and light of fireplaces, candles, the illuminations of reunion.

True, Thanksgiving legends evoke the conflict between white European settlers and the native peoples who welcomed them, but even so, this holiday points more to inclusion than displacement. Generations of varied immigrant groups have identified as Americans by embracing this holiday -- and its peculiar menu.

When the president of the United States ritually commutes the death sentence of a turkey, as George W. Bush did at the White House last week, one imagines the cruel rebuke felt by the legion of unpardoned death row inmates across the country, and so the joke goes flat. Yet here, too, even wishing for universal commutation, one can affirm an attempt at joviality.

Thanksgiving wants to be lighthearted, only friendly, a time of towns organized around games; of formerly dispersed families gathered at laden tables; a rare interval of authentic leisure; the most martial of nations at ease for once. A holiday, pure and simple.

What we love most is Thanksgiving's underlying idea: that existence itself is a gift. If the holiday ritual calls for the bounty of culinary excess -- four side dishes, three kinds of pie, two forms of cranberry -- it is not to celebrate affluence but to acknowledge the accidental richness of life itself. The multiple desserts are tribute to all that we don't deserve. In taking time away from work, we are remembering that the most precious things are those that we do nothing to earn.

Thus, in some homes couples look across the table at one another and recall how, years ago, each was ambushed by romantic desire, then was stunned to discover it as mutual. In others, parents marvel at the ways their children have surpassed them. Or friends take note of how the passage of time has turned simple familiarity into unbreakable bonds. Perhaps sons and daughters glimpse in their mothers and fathers, or even in their brothers and sisters, a rock-solid trustworthiness for which, as yet, they have no words.

Some people are ill this Thanksgiving, bearing the effects of stroke, say, or recuperating from an operation, or clinging, perhaps, to what strength has outlasted the chemotherapy. Yet aren't they the very ones who tell their healthy friends and relatives how precious is every day, every hour, every minute? Some families are broken, many people are alone, beloved ones are missing -- a holiday that celebrates intimacy can make its absence painful.

Idealized observances, so different from the real, can weigh too much. No one lives in Norman Rockwell land. No one lives forever. Human beings are constitutionally incapable of consistent generosity. Every person has reason to feel regret. Yet directly facing such difficult facts of the human condition can be a relief, because they inherently suggest their counterfacts. Even the tragic aspect of experience, that is, can open to the primal mystery on which all else rests, and Thanksgiving dares to affirm that mystery as benign. Life is good.

An attitude of gratefulness defines us at our best. It does this by pointing away from the self toward others, or toward an Other. Conventionally religious people are quick to put the name "God" on the one being thanked, and prayers come quickly to lips this week. But the feeling of sublime indebtedness, defining what is expressly human about humanity, is larger than religion. On Thanksgiving, feast of the exuberant abundance of creation, all language about any conceivable Creator falls short because creation itself exceeds our capacity to account for it. No matter, because, in being buoyed by this most oceanic of emotions, one need not know toward whom, exactly, one feels it. Let each person be God, therefore, to every other. God enough for now.

And isn't that why we call it "grace" -- the gift that requires nothing of the recipient except a heart so full it overflows, becoming a well of grace for someone else. In this way grace abounds. Why not join hands at the table, then, letting a moment's silence do the speaking, since the day itself is our way of giving thanks?

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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