American folklore, myths, Pilgrims, religious freedom, separation of Church and state, Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is frankly a uniquely American holiday. Not to say that there are not other harvest celebrations in many parts of the world. There are. And no doubt they have their own unique qualities.
We are not talking better best, but different. Get it?
Thanksgiving to children is part of that delicious march toward the big day when presents are piled under a evergreen tree decorated with tinsel and balls of glass. It is a day to eat lots of things we don’t ordinarily see. Pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and that ubiquitous turkey with stuffing and plenty of gravy for the mashed taters.
To adults, it is the beginning of the big rush for Christmas, meaning shopping and cleaning and baking and wrapping and suddenly realizing that you don’t have enough days left to do all you need to do to make this the all time most perfect Christmas ever to be had by anyone in your entire family, and they will all thank you forevermore. Whew! And it never happens, so there is always next year!
The day itself is an amalgamation of American folklore, religion, secular hedonism, and excitement. There are parades, football, specials galore, movies opening, and the grand opportunity to chat with Aunt Ethel about Uncle Pete’s bunions and carbuncles. Can you hardly wait?
As children, we are victimized by lying school districts who are intent upon making sure that we understand that this holiday arose at Plymouth Rock to celebrate the fine land offered so kindly by friendly Indians. At the end of that first season, the pilgrims (who are famous for coming to Merika for religious freedom) and the American Indians who for reasons unknown were happy to see the palefaces take over and strip their living and hunting lands, sit down at a outdoor feast in the pleasant late fall. Thanks Paleface! I was always wantin’ to move West ya know, to visit the kids and grand kids.
The truth of the matter is that folks in St. Augustine Florida actually claim the first Thanksgiving on September 8, 1565. But then the Dutch in Leiden claim that the Pilgrims left their shores for the “New World” taking with them the holiday of Thanksgiving as well as civil marriage (shocked?).
In any case, we as rather tabla rasa humans, soak up all this nonsense, and get all warm and fuzzy as we draw turkeys, and make pilgrim hats to celebrate. My, so nice that we have religious freedom because of Pilgrims. Technically correct since it was the Pilgrim propensity for demanding adherence to “our” religious practices or get out of Dodge, that caused our “founding fathers” to adopt ever more stringent rules separating the two institutions of state and said religions.
Although Thanksgiving is certainly a very secular holiday for most, it still carries (even sans the Pilgrim angle) a fairly religious message. Give thanks. And when we give thanks its usually to someone or something. And for most of us, we sit at the table one of about three times a year and turn our thoughts to God in however we define him, and “give thanks.” Then we attack the food.
Our usual course is to gather in family units, the bigger the better. Grandma and aunties, and plenty of cousins. So in that sense its a giving of thanks for families and our shared heritage. It is in some sense the best of table hospitality, the sharing of food. Many are off to their once a year stint at the local soup kitchen for serving food to the “less fortunate.” This is designed to “teach” lessons to our children, and to pat ourselves a bit on the back for our “givingness.”
I don’t ascribe to the nonsense of Plymouth Plantation and its harvest of “plenty” sharing with the natives. While it seems clear that the Indians did help the woe begotten settlers to survive that first year, I’m sure that there were tensions about this interloper and what it’s intentions might be in the longer run.
But, I do subscribe to the day as being one of general thanksgiving. It is a time to remember and think about how awfully lucky most of us are, most of the time.
Through personal crises of various types, we manage to keep on keepin’ on. The mortgage gets paid, the lights are on, there is food in the fridge. We are even willing to suffer a bit in the winter and early spring as we indulge just a bit during the build up to winter and it’s snow and cold.
We think about our blessings, large and small. We ponder the lives of so many others, so much less fortunate. We ponder the hard lives of most of our predecessors in time. We smile softly and think that we can remember this day as one of the good ones.
I frankly don’t know if American Indians celebrate this day or not. I’d be inclined to think not, but again, independent of pilgrims, they too have as much reason to recall blessings as anyone else. Unlike the celebration of Columbus’s day, they are not called to herald the very one who brought them disease, loss of home, and the death of the better parts of their nations.
So our harvest festival is unique, but as I said, it’s not better than that of any other country. We just make a big to do about it. It gets our juices running as we start that sprint toward Kris Kringle and the whole split personality of baby Jesus and Santa crammed together on the same side board in the dining room. It’s just that we don’t get confused at the combination of religion and secular joy as we do at Christmas time.
So get out the turkey platter, and find the gravy boat. The kitchen holds center stage, and kids are shooed out about 1200 times a day. Bring on the stuffing and save that wishbone for making a wish on Friday when it has nicely dried and will snap! And don’t forget, don’t eat much on Wednesday. You will be needing the room!