This past Sunday I had to give a talk at church on the topic of Thanksgiving. The following is one version of my notes.
Thanksgiving has long been one of my favorite holidays. There are no gifts to buy, no decorations to put up, just a big delicious meal, and a nice long weekend after a light work week here in the US. The turkey coma is a bonus, and the leftovers are always amazing.
When we lived in Asia, because our kids attended the American school, a long holiday meant we had time to travel to other countries. Our first Thanksgiving in Asia was in Cebu, Philippines. We were on a youth temple trip, and we found a lovely German restaurant that boasted an authentic American Thanksgiving buffet. The food was mostly good, although one dish was labelled “candied potatoes.” It consisted of sliced fried potatoes covered in syrup and hard candies. It reminded me of the types of dishes we occasionally encountered in Asia that had nearly familiar names, but then were not what we expected at all. This one was not a favorite. Our next Thanksgiving we were in Hanoi, Vietnam, and found a fantastic multi-course Thanksgiving dinner overlooking Halong Bay. That’s probably my favorite Thanksgiving of all time, mostly because I didn’t have to cook a thing, and the food was fantastic, even more than usual thanks to a dose of culinary home-sickeness. Plus, there was both ham and turkey.
As a kid, Thanksgiving meant driving 9 hours to my sister’s house in New Hampshire, then being relegated to the kids’ table in the kitchen while the adults had dinner in the dining room. Many people find Thanksgiving awkward. There are disagreements over politics, religion, significant others, old rivalries and grievances, or simple generation gaps. With extended families, the start time can be a point of contention as married couples have to navigate a drop in at two different meals. In our house, it’s exacerbated by one son being vegan and another vegetarian, meaning we have to find space in the oven for both a turkey and a tofurkey, plus two versions of each side dish. But conflict is actually the point of Thanksgiving, and why it’s an enduring tradition.
Awkward meals bring us together. There’s a line in Pride & Prejudice toward the end of the novel. Elizabeth Bennett is at Pemberley with her aunt and uncle when her old rival Caroline Bingley shows up and starts throwing shade. Her barbs accidentally wound Darcy’s younger sister, although she intended to insult Elizabeth. At this moment, the servants bring in a tray of food.
“There was now employment for the whole party; for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches soon collected them round the table.”
So it is with Thanksgiving. Maybe that’s why they call it “shutting your pie hole.” We may bring baggage along to these meals, but breaking bread helps us to bridge the divide. There’s even a scripture about Thanksgiving dinner, Luke 12: 34-36:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.
Although cultures throughout time have celebrated harvests with feasts, this was a tradition that was specifically honored by the early settlers in Massachusetts. Pilgrim feast days often followed days of fasting, and were especially important because they did not celebrate Christmas. Pilgrims always liked to insert a little pain (like fasting and eschewing the more mirthful Christmas) into anything good; they were killjoys. I confess Christmas is also not my favorite. Maybe I’ve got a few drops of killjoy blood in me. I did have ancestors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
We are in a moment of conflict right now as a nation. We’ve had one of the most divisive elections in history, with the popular vote (that doesn’t matter) contradicting the electoral college vote. We’ve heard from both sore winners and sore losers. Tensions are fraught. One of my Facebook friends declared in his status update that if his candidate didn’t win, there would be an actual civil war. I used to babysit this kid. We live in conflicted times. People are filled with outrage and fake news and have access to share their views freely via social media. We can’t unsee some of the status updates we’ve seen. Respect and communication are casualties.
The American Thanksgiving holiday was truly popularized in 1863. Lincoln asked the nation to come together to celebrate Thanksgiving in the wake of the US Civil War. People in that era were nostalgic about the early days of the Colonies, kind of like how the 80s are popular now. Even though the Civil War was over (with 620K American citizens dead), the war was far from over in people’s hearts. People were angry about the draft laws. Some were still angry about the emancipation of the slaves. There were riots in Northern cities. It sounds a lot like the news since our recent election, only what we are going through now pales by comparison. The Lincolns were also mourning the death of their 11 year old son. Lincoln said:
“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity . . . peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.”
In 1864, he made a second plea for Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving:
“I do further recommend to my fellow citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust.”
So a part of Thanksgiving is being humble and coming together despite our differences, also things we are talking about in the wake of the recent election. Certainly if those who fought in an actual civil war could come together to break bread, we can find a way to reconcile those who voted for Trump or Hillary.
In the 1890s, football games were added to the tradition, further adding rivalries to the mix of Thanksgiving traditions. As if natural family conflicts, colonization and civil war weren’t enough, let’s add sports.
By the 20th century, the Pilgrim story was used as a way to teach American children how to be good citizens, being thankful and coming together as a community. The myth of early settlers and Native Americans feasting together gave a sense that despite our cultural or political or tribal differences, God brought us together and blessed our labors. The facts of the conflicts that tore them apart were put on hiatus for the meal. What followed and what came before were ignored for the moment. There was a cessation of hostility.
It wasn’t made an official national holiday until 1939, during the great depression. It originally fell on the 5th Thursday in the month, but retailers lobbied for a longer shopping season, so FDR moved it up a week. This led to a partisan divide with 23 states agreeing to the earlier date “Democratic Thanksgiving,” and 22 states sticking to the later date “Republican Thanksgiving.” Republican holdout sneeringly called the earlier dated holiday “Franksgiving.” In 1941, Congress cracked down on it, officially making it the 4th Thursday. Texas held out until 1956. I’m surprised they ever conceded.
We may feel we are at a unique moment in history, but it’s not as unique as we’d like to think. The same things that have divided us in the past still divide us today: the interplay of racism and the economy, eroding privilege, the controversial status of immigrants, religious views, political divides, and family disputes. But this one meal can give us a break. We can’t argue when our mouths are full.
Even without such political strife, there is often inter-generational conflict to navigate. Last week, a grandmother in Mesa accidentally texted a stranger named Jamal, giving him the details of the family’s upcoming Thanksgiving meal time. He was confused about whether his actual grandmother had suddenly figured out how to use her phone, so he wrote back asking for a selfie. When they figured out it was a mistake, she still invited him to come along and share the meal with their family. Apparently, grandmothers are better at feeding people than sending text messages.
Despite the indignities of the kids’ table, perhaps it’s better than the civilities of the so-called adults table. Here’s hoping that we can all make it through the meal with our gratitude and humility as a guide, and emerge on the road to recovery as a society, as only a good meal can heal us. If Lincoln held out such hope in the wake of such conflict as the US Civil War, maybe we can all foresee a brighter future.
Let’s talk turkey.
- Are you looking forward to Thanksgiving this year?
- Have you had any Thanksgivings that were memorably good or bad?
- Do your Thanksgivings reduce or revive conflicts?
- Did you get stuck at the kids’ table?