I now know several people who don't celebrate Thanksgiving because of America’s subsequent annihilation of the Indians. I also know people who hate or avoid this holiday because their dysfunctional family gatherings are the antithesis of the Norman Rockwell/Hallmark Card stereotypes that were held up to us as normal when we were young, even though our celebrations (or families) didn’t look like that.
And I’m aware that there is a growing food-humorless population that rejects Thanksgiving as an occasion of food used as over-indulgent amusement. The wonderful but regrettably-fat-hating Bill Maher, for example, speaks with horror about Thanksgiving because we’re such pigs that we “stuff food into other food” (as if Thanksgiving were the only time for stuffing!). And he brings us full circle when he observes that Thanksgiving commemorates “the one nice moment we had with the Indians” and is (and I paraphrase slightly here): “like a date rapist saying, ‘Let’s remember the lovely dinner we had earlier in the evening and forget about what happened later’.”
However, politically incorrect though it may be, I have always loved Thanksgiving and I still do. When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was the only major holiday that wasn’t the sole province of the Christians or the Jews, so it was the one family gathering that wasn’t fraught with religious/cultural tension. I also loved the food, and I liked the mythology of sharing and friendship between the Pilgrims and the Indians. Later, in my teens, when I discovered Buffy St. Marie and read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I still loved Thanksgiving, but was genuinely appalled by the revelation of actual American history.
Over the years, Thanksgiving went from neutral to melancholy as our immediate family circle died off and our extended families wanted no part of us. For my parents and me, Thanksgiving was often just the three of us, sometimes at home, more often in a nice restaurant; my Jewish mother preferred to save her cooking energy for Christmas dinner.
As an adult, I have come to appreciate that Thanksgiving isn’t really an Early American construct, but just another variation on the Autumn Harvest Festival celebrated in many ways by cultures around the world for thousands of years. Indeed, in earliest pagan times, farmers believed their crops held spirits who made the crops flourish or fail, and who had to be killed before they took revenge on the farmers who harvested those crops; the festivals honored defeat of the spirits. Numerous harvest festivals and celebrations of thanksgiving were also held by the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, Romans and Hebrews, some of them paying homage to Corn Goddesses with sacrifices of fruit and animals, and enjoying games, parades and a thanksgiving feast (sound familiar?).
What I think gets lost in all this Thanksgiving dissent is the simple idea of giving thanks for the good things in our lives – whether to a deity, one another, or the tender mercies of a mysterious universe. We can’t change history, but we can give personal and contemporary meaning to this holiday by sharing, caring and re-charging our gratitude. For the record, I hereby give thanks for:
* my home – safe, dry, cozy and private;
* my reasonably good health – all five of my senses (and the sixth…) work well, I have most of my marbles, I can walk, I experience very little physical pain and I don’t have to endure horrible medical treatment;
* my independence – I’m not physically dependent on others and financially I'm holding my own (by the skin of my teeth, but still...);
* my friends and colleagues – I’m truly rich in people who like, love and appreciate me;
* my gifts – intelligence, language, intuition & Tarot, humor, music, critical thought, cooking and a few others I’m too modest to list here...;
* my history and memories – the dearly departed, the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done, the people I’ve met, the things I am;
* my toys and tools – computer, television, books, (and a few others I’m too smart to list here...).
There are moments – sitting down to a nice meal I’ve cooked myself; snuggling into a bed with clean sheets and a fluffy quilt; sitting in the quiet with a good book, strong coffee and cigarettes; looking out the window early in the morning, watching other people go to work – when a wave of gratitude washes over me and I realize that despite all the things that hurt, anger, worry or frighten me, I’m a very fortunate person.
So, however you do (or don’t) celebrate the day, I wish you a healthy and happy Thanksgiving, and a joyful awareness of the blessings in your life.
And a candied sweet potato. Trust me, it won’t kill you.