I don’t understand this holiday. I really don’t. Not as a holiday. As a verb, yes, absolutely yes, but as a holiday, no. So I did some research because, as you know, that’s what I do. And what I learned may surprise you.
But first, I think Thanksgiving has to be one of those traditions that is your tradition in order for you to enjoy it. And it most definitely wasn’t a tradition in my family. I have very few memories of Thanksgiving as a kid. Twice when we drove out to a suburb to eat dinner with my mother’s aunts and uncle. I don’t remember ever having met this distant family before and both times my siblings and I were the only folks younger than our parents. Then there was the one time when my grandfather, who was from northern Italy, made spaghetti. That was weird. There were huge chunks of beef (not crumbled) and vegetables I couldn’t identify. It was definitely not like the spaghetti that I knew and liked! And then was three times after my parents divorced and my mom, who sold school textbooks for Scott Foresman (where, decades earlier, she had edited the Dick, Jane & Sally readers), had to attend the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention and she took me with her: to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. I have great memories of those trips. But of Thanksgiving? Of big dinners of turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes and pie? No. That didn’t happen in my family.
Well, there was one time: I was 19 and living in San Francisco, my brother in San Jose, and my sister and mom flew out from Chicago. We had stayed up late the night before drinking and playing cards so that morning only my mom and I went to church. Before we left, my mom told my sister to turn the turkey while we were gone. (Why she asked this, we still have no idea, except that I’m not sure she had much experience with cooking turkeys.) Later, during dinner, we couldn’t figure out why there was so little meat. Then we realized my sister had flipped the turkey. Oh yeah, that’s a good memory! (btw, my sister is hosting Thanksgiving for my family (sans me) this year and she’s a good cook. I hope she still finds this memory funny!)
CNN just ran an article on Friendsgiving, theorizing that the roots of this tradition began around 2007 when the economics in our country were changing, combined with fewer folks having kids and those who do are often waiting later to have them. Also, traveling over Thanksgiving has become quite a hassle. But honestly, I think it may have to do with many folks not wanting to want to deal with judgments from their families – either immediate or extended. Judgments about what they do, what they look like, who they love, what they believe, and of course, politics. It’s one thing to navigate these waters with parents but with uncles and aunts and cousins? That can be too much. It’s far more fun to spend a special day with friends who love and accept you just as you are. These are friends that have become family in a new, very essential, and concrete way.
According to a recent study, 38% of Americans will celebrate this year with 10 or more people. And that number would include many Friendsgivings as well. So what are the remaining 62% of Americans doing? Back in the ‘90s, I often went to the movies on Thanksgiving. If you went during the day, it was great. But by evening, a lot of families who were stuffed with too much food and tired of talking to each other would also go and the theatre got crowded.
So really, what’s the point of this holiday?
Let’s be honest, Thanksgiving has become synonymous with gluttonous over-eating and stress. Way too much food. And too much stress. Stress about cooking, about traveling, and even about seeing family.
I suppose the purpose of the day seems obvious: it is a time to give thanks. But do folks really not do that regularly? Instead, I think it’s just a tradition for many. And traditions are hard to give up. Even if we don’t understand why we do them.
Home for the Holidays is my favorite film for this time of year. (Yes, I know, I’m always referencing some film!) Honestly, I think the reviews for this are mediocre because it’s so realistic. It’s not the kind of warm and fuzzy movie we like, but it really does capture the reality of many family gatherings. And the love and tolerance of each other shines through in some truly honest and touching ways.
So the father (played by Charles Dunning) begins the before dinner prayer and starts to ramble:
“Thanksgiving really means something to us though G-d dammit we couldn’t tell you what it is. And thousand-year-old trees are falling over dead and they shouldn’t”
I love those two sentences. Especially as they appear back-to-back. This film is from 1995. Already many of us had forgotten the meaning of the day. And, yes, some of us were thinking about the environment even then. This Thursday—and every day—may we remember to be thankful for trees.
So let’s consider the whole idea of giving thanks. Do our prayers include thanks for those that are supplying our food? Thank God for our farmers! Farming is damn hard work. But did you know that 52% of all farmworkers are migrant, unauthorized workers with no legal status in the U.S.?[i] Without them, Illinois couldn’t harvest 420 million pounds of pumpkins. Washington couldn’t harvest 5.4 billion pounds of apples. And then there’s the corn from Nebraska, the green beans and cranberries from Wisconsin, the sweet potatoes from North Carolina, and the famous Idaho potatoes.[ii]
I’m not being sacrilegious with this meme and I don’t want to get political, only maybe it’s time we stop criminalizing the folks who help put food on our tables.
And what is this “tradition” of shopping? No sooner are our meals finished, and before we’ve even dug into the leftovers, we’re out the door shopping for great deals. As if everything we are grateful for isn’t enough. Does it bother anyone else (as much as it does me) that the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday? That we, as a society, have allowed that moniker to stick? And even more, that we’ve allowed it to encroach on our day of giving thanks – with sales beginning on Thursday evening. That’s okay? Really?
Perhaps my biggest struggle with Thanksgiving is that it is not a religious holiday, nor does it mark a specific day or event. Oh wait, it does mark a significant event, at least originally. Just not the one we were taught as children.
So if you’re still reading this, here’s the history:
There’s some debate about the first Thanksgiving. Did it occur the year pilgrims arrived or a year or two later, after they had planted their first seeds in foreign soil and were delighted to have procured a crop that might sustain them through the winter? According to the journal of the first governor of Plymouth, Massachusetts, it was in 1621. But it’s not likely that Indians were present.
The woman who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is largely responsible for Thanksgiving becoming a national holiday. She campaigned five presidents for 36 years and it was Abraham Lincoln who finally agreed. The year was 1863 and our country was in the middle of a terrible civil war. We were fighting amongst ourselves, not just with politics and words, but with cannons and guns. It’s really no surprise that Lincoln hoped this holiday could help bring the country together.
In his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863, Lincoln begins:
“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added…”
He invites all Americans “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise” and hopes that God might “heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it … to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”[iii]
In fact, it seems the second Thanksgiving wasn’t until after the Pequot massacres[iv] of 1637. This was when the Puritans—our God-loving and God-fearing ancestors from Europe—burned alive and shot almost 500 Pequot men, women, and children, hoping to wipe out the entire tribe. Then Governor Bradford (whose journal tells of the first Thanksgiving) decreed,
“For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a governor is in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.” [v]
How quickly Thanksgiving went from gratitude for having our most basic needs met – of food and good health – to a celebration of slaughtering our perceived enemies.
It seems to me that Lincoln’s prayer is as relevant today as it was one hundred and fifty-eight years ago.
This Thursday, whether you celebrate with friends, family, or simply alone, may you be grateful for everything. Not only your job, your bounty, your health, and your family, but also every other person who contributes to your abundance: farmers, migrant workers, doctors, employers, and yes, even our government. Remember the long history of our country and give thanks that we are – despite our struggles – still united. May we, as Lincoln implored, heal the wounds of our nation and restore it to peace, harmony, and union. May we each do our part – one meal, one conversation, one person at a time.
Pecan pie is a favorite of mine this time of year! What about you? What favorite foods are you eating?
[iii] If you do an internet search for “President Lincoln and Thanksgiving,” you’ll find a pdf link for the transcript of this proclamation at obamawhitehouse.archives.gov