The title of this post comes from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which, as Culturally Discombobulated explains, is required viewing for all American children. Here’s the opening segment, which I will use as if in one of my lazier lecture-writing moods to offer the questions I am going to circle around for the rest of this post: why are holidays always so depressing? Why should anyone give thanks on Thanksgiving? And what’s the point anyway in having a festival halfway between Halloween and Christmas?
Everyone knows Thanksgiving was kicked off when the Pilgrim Fathers sat down with their Native American mates and shared a big feast after a successful harvest. According to the enormously informative Wikipedia article on Thanksgiving, this happened in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation, and though there is some dispute over whether this was the first Thanksgiving celebrated in America (Pilgrim Fathers seem to have been mad keen on giving thanks at any available opportunity), this is the one that constitutes the origin story for the festival that goes on today.
OK. So I’m happy with the idea of thanking Squanto for all his help with the corn cultivation and the interpreting, and the Wampanoag people and their leader for donating their food when the new immigrants were on the point of starvation. (There is a very generous account of the whole affair by the Pokanoket tribe here.) I also get the point that the Pilgrim Fathers were deeply religious and hence thanked God for everything that happened, good or bad, because that was what they did.
What I’m less clear about is who or what is being thanked by modern Americans. Since it all turned out so badly with the Native Americans, saying ‘thanks for welcoming us to your landmass’ seems in rather poor taste. Some Native Americans agree: there’s an Unthanksgiving Day protest held on Alcatraz every year, and a National Day of Mourning is held by the United American Indians of New England, to commemorate ‘the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture’.
But this is a pretty minority view, at least in the Midwest – I haven’t met any left-leaning radical-history-writing types in Chicago expressing any scruples about celebrating Thanksgiving. Instead, it seems to have evolved into a festival that’s hard for outsiders to really grasp, celebrated slightly differently by every family, but embraced by Americans of all faiths and none.
There aren’t normally presents, decorations, or cards. It’s basically all about the food, and eating a family meal together. As far as I can make out it’s traditional to eat a mid-afternoon meal (the one we went to started some time between 3 and 4pm). And there seems to be some reference back to the First Thanksgiving in that the food is all New World. Turkey, of course (there seems to be an unBritish obsession with brining the turkey); pumpkin pie for pudding; side dishes of cornbread, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce. Green bean casserole: it’s taken me a while to understand that when Americans say casserole it’s what we British would call a bake, and each family supposedly has its own take on a dish of green beans cooked in the oven with some variation on slivered almonds, fried onions and cream of mushroom soup. (Dissing this on a blog can get you into trouble, so I won’t even start.) We were very grateful to be invited to a vegetarian Thanksgiving, and I was reconciled in advance to there being no turkey (or even tofurky), but it was a little disappointing that they didn’t serve the disgusting confection that is sweet potatoes with marshmallow
The other thing you can do, at the Thanksgiving table, is go round and talk about what you are grateful for, and rather than being expressed as a prayer to God (though I guess this still happens in some homes), it’s now considered a non-religious thing that even yoga teachers can ask you to think about as you lie in corpse pose on Thanksgiving Eve. There’s lots of research confirming the positive psychological effect of gratitude, and I gave it a good try myself, counting a few of my blessings. But it does feel a little – well – smug. Sitting around racking your brain about how thankful you are rather than cooking a meal to thank an individual who saved your life seems a rather watered down version of the original concept.
I guess this is the point at which being an immigrant doesn’t work with Thanksgiving. We were glad to be included, but being thankful for being able to give thanks really does seem a self-reflexive step too far. If you can’t sit around with some members of your family who you think should be thanking you or who you want to thank, eat the family’s own spin on green beans from the family’s old chipped china – maybe there’s not much point. This long weekend has felt to me and M like just about the longest and most boring ever.
Except: Thanksgiving is not really an end in itself. No, it is a harbinger of Christmas. With Thanksgiving done and dusted, Black Friday explodes horrifically across the nation’s malls, unmissable one day only discounts are announced, and doors open at 4am for everyone to get their Christmas shopping going (having camped out overnight in what would be sub-zero temperatures if you weren’t working in Fahrenheit). None of this drip drip wear me down ’43 shopping days to go until Christmas’ rubbish that you get in Britain. You’ve had a day of uncommercial gratitude. Now: Ready, Set, Spend.