Did I actually celebrate Thanksgiving this year? Sort of. Not really. It’s a matter of definition.
In terms of traditional gluttony I didn’t bother. The fellow Americans at work arranged a mini pot-luck lunch on Tuesday, so I got the basic trimmings and traditional tastes into my system then. For my Thanksgiving lunch at work I just had a bowl of mass-produced spinach soup with some mass-produced meatballs tossed in for good measure. For the evening meal I got a little closer to tradition: sliced turkey over Karelian pastries and cranberry juice to drink, with some leftover chicken soup for a starter and a few veggie pancakes as a chaser. My doctor would have been proud of me.
I was supposed to make sure that our international school’s morning opening had a certain Thanksgiving flavor to it, but getting there just two minutes before it was supposed to start, I found that my colleague Jay had it under control, and all I needed to do was help him feed The Turkey Song from his laptop into the PA system. Probably the most Thanksgivingy thing I did then was to sit and listen to Arlo Guthrie on Youtube for a bit, since, as my sister pointed out, it just isn’t Thanksgiving without hearing him sing about Alice’s Restaurant.
Having been an expatriate for just over half of my life already, Thanksgiving traditions feel like they are slipping further and further away from me. Not that I was ever particularly traditional in that sense to begin with, and in one sense the more I’ve learned about those traditions, the more cynical I’ve become about them. The idyllic picture of indigenous and immigrant communities coming together in the primeval woodland around Plymouth Rock in peace and harmony–to enable a new society to take shape, later to become the glorious United States, was a warped bit of nostalgia for its time, and Hollywood glosses have done nothing to improve the situation. One of the little native boys who would have been at that legendary cross-cultural feast grew up to be chief of his people, and in that role he (rightly) believed that his people would be better off if the pale skinned new-comers went elsewhere; but in his process of trying to convince them of this idea he ended up with his head on a pole at the gate to the new security fence they had installed. Thinking back on those days as good old days to be celebrated and commemorated takes more than a little bit of willful ignorance then.
But that being said, there are still three things that I consider to be particularly valuable about the American Thanksgiving celebration, even nowadays. For starters, personal friendships across cultural borders are a particularly valuable thing. As sad as the history of the relationship between the two ethnic groups turned out to be, some of the natives and the whites did really become friends, and some of those friendships delayed the wars that eventually came, and even endured through the wars in spite of the hostilities between their little groups. In some ways there is a re-telling here of one of the forgotten lessons of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: your “neighbor” is not necessarily the one who shares your skin color, your religion or your tribal identity; your neighbor is the person who helps you when you need help, even if they remain totally foreign to you in other ways. Especially as an expatriate, and in working with internationally mobile and immigrant students, I find this lesson more and more worth reminding ourselves of.
Beyond that, the next lesson I draw from Thanksgiving is that it became a holiday because of the political action of people who didn’t actually have voting rights: women. In the nineteenth century a woman’s greatest area of power and influence was in the kitchen, and so the more ambitious women of the period decided to capitalize on that and lobby for a holiday based largely on providing them with a showcase for their talents. The fact that the influence women could influence at home resulted in the institution of a new national holiday for the United States, which in turn further reinforced the value and power of women within the society, serves as a moral example still today of what people whose rights are being trampled on can still accomplish when they band together and capitalize on their strengths. In our generation this can apply to undocumented immigrants, homeless people and religious minorities which are still seen as having limited right to exist within particular societies. By showing what they are good at, and by getting those in power to recognize the contributions they are making, these people too not only get the satisfaction of making a positive contribution; they build momentum in the direction of the society some day giving them in practice the full human rights they’re already theoretically entitled to. Thanksgiving provides us with a sense of hope that even the marginalized can have influence and gain recognition.
But perhaps most important of all, Thanksgiving provides us with an example of the possibility to enforce some limits of “good taste” on even the most crass manifestations of capitalist market forces. You just can’t start with Christmas parties, Christmas decorations and Christmas shopping binges until after Thanksgiving. Face it: Christmas has become an ecological and economic absurdity, especially in the US. This year Christmas sales are expected to be 2% greater than last year, in spite of the fact that 2/3 of American families will end up paying absurd credit card service fees and interest in the process, and a full percentage point (or two) of these will still be in debt from this Christmas a year from now. In encouraging this sort of potlatch, American retailers have initiated an annual buy binge aptly referred to as “Black Friday”. Fortunately this year no one was actually killed in the mass hysteria this produces. But the fact that they are at least waiting with this insanity until after Thanksgiving says something. It says that there really can be limits placed on commercialism; that there can be greater concerns in life than what is good for the market. Even if some break the spirit of this by spending Thanksgiving evening lining up to get into “super discount sales” at the stroke of midnight, Thanksgiving does set a useful limitation of good taste. This is something else that the world really should not give up hope on.
My childhood being what it was, we never really got into watching the big parades or major football bowl games. We never had the big sit down family dinners at home either for that matter. In fact the greatest number of memorable Thanksgiving dinners took place at my father’s little escape farm up on the Massachusetts/Vermont border. He bought that place when he was in his early 30s, sort of at the end of his quasi-hippie period, as he was getting ready for his second marriage. He kept it until the first year of his third marriage, when both its location and its style failed to fit in with the sort of lifestyle that new wife had in mind. But by that time I had already got married myself and moved to Finland, so it didn’t make much difference to me. It was a greater blow to my younger siblings, but that’s another story.
Thanksgiving traditions at the farm included a different mix and match batch of friends and extended family each year, the challenge of getting the drafty old place up to a livable temperature using wood heating alone, a respectable sized roast turkey with plenty of stuffing, “Anne’s crans,” candied yams, various salads and steamed veggies, chunky mashed potatoes and sauces and gravies to suit different tastes, and a variety of deserts, one of which had to be pumpkin pie; and then of course Arlo singing about Alice on the radio as we got it all set up.
I’ve tried to introduce my sons to as many of these sorts of traditions as possible, but without the farm-like setting, and without that time off from school for any of us in this country it just hasn’t been the same. They have developed a taste for turkey and pumpkin pie, I can proudly say, but that’s about the extent of it.
But for all that the lessons of cross-cultural friendship, unofficial political activism and limiting commercial excesses have remained with me from my youth, and they have become more ingrained in my thinking as I have aged. Together I believe they would be worthy of genuine Thanksgiving movement––the kind of thing that Arlo says today’s twenty-somethings are too young to know anything about. Let’s get a good old neo-hippie style protest going against xenophobia, marginalization and crass commercialism! Let’s show the world we’re made of better stuff than that! And then let’s each in our own way thank God for the possibility that life goes on, and continues to have its own mysterious beauty, in spite of all the human stupidity we continue to see around us. In that spirit we can enter into the Christmas season with sincere hopes and goals for peace on earth, good will towards mankind.