Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Contemplating Thanksgiving

It seems to me that, over time, liking Thanksgiving has become politically incorrect and it pisses me off.  I presently know people (and knew others in the past) who hate Thanksgiving, because they feel it’s an insult to the memory of Native Americans who were culturally brutalized, materially ripped off and physically destroyed practically to the point of extinction by Europeans who came here in search of their manifest destiny.  And of course, all that is true.

More recently, people object to Thanksgiving as a celebration of gluttony.  “We have a holiday where we stuff food into other food,” Bill Maher (an unapologetic non-foodie) once said.  (I guess no one’s had the heart to tell him that there are many dishes that involve stuffing food into other food.)  Maher also criticized Thanksgiving on the grounds of history, saying (and this is the quote as I can best remember it):  “It’s just so us in our denial of our true history to celebrate the one nice moment we had with the Indians.  It’s like a date rapist saying, ‘Let’s not dwell on that, let’s think about the lovely dinner we had earlier in the evening’.”

Nonetheless, I’m not ashamed to say that I love Thanksgiving and have since childhood.  It was always my favorite holiday – partly because it meant wonderful food (I am an unapologetic foodie), but mainly because it was a non-religious holiday, which I greatly appreciated in dealing with my awkward bi-religion/bi-racial circumstances.  And I adored the Thanksgiving Day Parade – in the years before TV producers decided it would be a good idea to add corny, lip-synched entertainment in front of an entrance to Macy’s, which has since rendered the parade unwatchable.

I have no recollection of being taught in school that Indians were bad.  In fact, I have a clear memory of a happy fourth grade Thanksgiving play in which I recited a portion of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s endless epic, The Song of Hiawatha while another kid played a tom-tom drum: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee / By the shining Big-Sea-Water / Stood the wigwam of Nokomis / Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.”  That’s all I remember and I’ve since learned that the poem bears no relation to any Indian history whatsoever.

Indeed, the classic Thanksgiving myth isn't true, either.  Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe were not invited to the Pilgrims' "First Thanksgiving," which the transplanted Brits thought of purely as a harvest festival, not a special occasion of giving thanks.  The Indians basically crashed the party -- but politely, bringing substantial food to share.

Anyway, I digress.  America’s actual history with Indians was never mentioned in our elementary school history books (for obvious reasons…) – except for that nice dinner we had with them earlier in the evening.  For that matter, our history with the Indians, along with the detailed brutality of slavery and the World War II national encampment of the Japanese (legal immigrants, second-generation-American-born Japanese and others) was left out of the curriculae too.  Remember, this was the 50s to mid 60s and books offering corrected, expanded history didn't yet exist below the college level.

No, what taught me that Indians were bad were movie and TV westerns in the 50s and 60s, because the Indians were always ablaze with war paint, whooping and swooping down on settlers and pioneers to scalp them, burn their homes, forts and wagons, and steal white women.  It wasn’t until I discovered Buffy Saint Marie in my early teens and later read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and saw the film Little Big Man that I learned the horrible truth about what white European Americans did to Native Americans.    

However, none of this has lessened my love of turkey with gravy, dressing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.  Perhaps this means I’m putting my stomach ahead of my politics, to which I say: "Ahh, not really; please pass the cranberry sauce."  Besides, being introduced to these new arts and history sources came about the same time that I realized the contemporary Thanksgiving has nothing to do with Pilgrims and Indians and all that came after.  It’s about gathering with friends and family if possible, but whatever the circumstances, genuinely acknowledging the blessings and tender mercies in our lives.

And it’s about the food.  And it’s about football.  And it’s about the prelude to Christmas which, for most people, thank goodness, has no more to do with the birth of Christ and Christianity’s crazy, bloody history than Thanksgiving is about Pilgrims and Indians.  Mass majority Christmas is about the food and Christmas trees and Christmas presents and Christmas music, both secular and religious.  I was in a big choir in high school and every year we sang the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which was wonderful to be part of (I was still an angelic first-soprano) and delightful to hear.  So I guess my point is: lighten up ya’ll.  We have little enough to celebrate these days, and if we choose to delight in these traditional holidays in our own, somehow-meaningful way, that's a good thing.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll be alone – for the first time by choice.  I won’t have to travel or dress up and I'm not doing much cooking, but sweet potatoes will be involved.  I won’t watch the parade or football.  What I will do is sleep late, then look for the original Miracle On 34th Street on TV.  I’ll light two Yahrzeit candles, one for my departed loved ones -- and one for the Indians.  I’ll think about and speak out loud what I’m grateful for and offer thanks to the general universe for my largely good fortune.  I will have a Happy Thanksgiving and hope you do, too.

1 comment:

Nadine B Hack said...

Dear Jeanne - I share your feelings of thankfullness about Thanksgiving. One of my dearest friends recently suffered major head trauma after a serious accident and the words below were written by another one of his friends who have been part of the circle surrounding him in loving support as he struggles to regain basic functions like speech, memory and walking. When we choose to be in a state of gratitude we can celebrate together. Love, - Nadine

In these days of Thanksgiving we bow in gratitude for "...the wild joy of belonging that we can also call gratefulness". My friend and mentor Brother David Steindl-Rast has made gratefulness his life's practice and he speaks beautifully on its benefits: "Gratitude springs from an insight, a recognition of interdependence, that something good has come to me from another person, that it is freely given to me. The moment this recognition dawns on me, gratitude spontaneously dawns in my heart. You can feel either grateful or alienated, but never both at the same time. Gratefulness drives out alienation; there is not room for both in the same heart. When you are grateful you know that you belong to a network of give-and-take and you say "yes" to that belonging."