I’ve recently come to a realization. It’s one that I think I’ve had for a while but never dared to admit to myself—Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I believe Thanksgiving represents something fundamentally important about ourselves and our relationships. Thanksgiving reminds us of the importance of the giver, the gift, and gratitude. 

Thanksgiving isn’t typically associated with gift giving. Indeed, it would be unusual to give someone a “Thanksgiving present.” And yet, I think Thanksgiving is more inclined to gift giving than Christmas. Now I know this sounds strange. We don’t give gifts during Thanksgiving, but there’s a gift exchange within Thanksgiving that I find remarkable, one that better reflects what’s been lost at Christmas. I think over the years I’ve become a bit jaded about the Christmas season. For many of us, the anticipation of the season has been replaced with anxiety. We spend a majority of the time procuring gifts for family and friends, hoping that these items will be well received by the other. Our materialistic gifts have come to represent the “Christmas spirit.” Certainly, there is nothing wrong with giving a gift. We all enjoy receiving! And yet, we buy with the expectation that we’ll also be getting something in return. The giver and the gift relationship is fraught with expectations of value. How much or how little should I give? What if they give me a gift that is worth more than my gift? What if I receive a gift but don’t have one to give in return? 

For me, Thanksgiving represents gift giving without the stress that comes from determining value. We don’t spend weeks stressing about the event, endlessly buying and checking our lists to determine who we need to buy gifts for. Moreover, the expectations at Thanksgiving are different. We come into Thanksgiving with less baggage, literally. Instead of packing our cars full of gifts, we might bring food and drink instead. And those who have nothing to bring are as welcomed and included as those who can give. During Christmas, there’s always the worry of receiving a gift and having nothing to give in return. Thus, gift giving carries a feeling of debt that’s hard to overcome. The only way to eliminate that feeling of debt is to give a gift of equal or more value the following year, which leads to years upon years of guilt-gift giving. But Thanksgiving is different. The meal is shared and all at the table are equal. It matters not if one brought or prepared something small, large, or nothing at all—all partake equally and all are filled without feeling guilt. 

French Catholic priest and theologian, Louis-Marie Chauvet (1942-) describes this as symbolic exchange. This is in marked contrast to the market exchange we’re accustomed to. According to Chauvet, symbolic exchange focuses on a logic of being rather than having. He explains using this example: 

Subject A having gathered coconuts, donates the harvest to subject B who, having made some pottery containers, gives them to subject C who at the end of a day spent fishing gives the fish to subject D, and so on. Neither A nor B nor C nor D…calculate ‘for how much’ they have harvested or fabricated goods and ‘how much’ they have a right to in exchange….Each gives without counting.[1]

In this system, everyone gives and receives. One breaks the system by counting the value of the gift, refusing the gift, or trying to give back a gift of equal or greater value. The most important element is the gift/return-gift structure. In a symbolic exchange, it’s the subjects themselves that are exchanged as opposed to market exchanges where values are traded. It’s the exchange itself that’s important, not the values. 

Fr. Louis-Marie Chauvet

This thought is radically different from the concept of value we find in Western society, which calculates worth when giving. The most important element in a market exchange is the value of the gift—like for like, to cancel a debt, to fulfill an obligation, and so on. However, in symbolic exchange, the crucial point isn’t in the value of the gift but the freely given return-gift of gratitude towards the giver. Here, the return-gift isn’t about exchanging a similarly valued gift with the original giver. The return-gift is one of gratitude, which shifts the emphasis away from the gift itself and toward the relationship and bond created by the gift. The gift symbolizes and celebrates a relationship. There is no debt, no expectation beyond the response of gratitude, which isn’t for the thing itself but for the relationship the gift represents. Without gratitude, the gift is just a thing, a value-object, going no further beyond a simple monetary exchange. 

In Thanksgiving, this relationship of symbolic exchange (giver, gift, and gratitude) becomes embodied around the table. The gift is shared, therefore the response of gratitude is also shared. Unlike a Christmas gift, which is typically between individuals, the Thanksgiving table is a communal gift. We give to one another through the giving of presence, not because of what or how much we bring or contribute, but simply by the fact of being-there. During Thanksgiving, we are both the giver and the gift, and our return-gift is gratitude for every presence that sits at the table. We’re thankful for the family and friends that give to our lives, those that make our lives special and joyful. The meal itself isn’t the gift per se (although delicious), but is a symbolic representation of the gratitude exchange that takes place among family and friends. The Thanksgiving meal is one given without counting, without guilt, and without obligation. 

I appreciate Thanksgiving because it’s an excellent opportunity for experiencing the beauty of gift giving and gratitude without the corporate and marketing trappings that seem to have marred Christmas. By pushing aside Thanksgiving, we miss a valuable inbreaking of something unique and wonderful. We might even describe it as “sacramental.” Because in Chauvet’s sacramental theology, “The gift owes nothing to the return-gift.”[2] We don’t give Thanksgiving to one another because it’s somehow deserved or warranted. Thanksgiving isn’t a celebration of one’s accomplishments or the accomplishments of another. The holiday itself comes from the simple desire to be thankful for the people we share our existence with. Love itself fuels the gift, and in thankfulness, we experience a grace that goes beyond market values of worth, cost, and entitlement. Through Thanksgiving, we discover the remarkable grace of gratitude through an event that shows how it’s the truly free gifts that make life beautiful.   

Gifts require gratitude for grace to take place. Chauvet writes, “Grace never reaches its essence of grace as fully as when it invites humans to this gracious return-gift, which is always inspired by love.”[3] Without gratitude, we miss the essence, the flavor of the event. Because without gratitude we cannot have grace. And without grace, the giver’s gift never represents anything more than a singular moment of exchanging value. It’s the return-gift, the gift of gratitude that fills our moments of gift giving with grace. Thanksgiving isn’t just a meal or a day off. It isn’t just the day marking the start of the holiday shopping season. Thanksgiving is a special opportunity to experience grace, one brought about by the free gifts we give one another as family and friends. 

[1] Louis-Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (Pueblo Books, 2001), 118.

[2] Chauvet, 123.

[3] Chauvet, 125.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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