collision of travel and food, rituals and memories, good intentions and half-truths.
Some pieces of Thanksgiving are unique, it’s true. Take, for instance, those enduring questions: How much will the Lions lose by this year? And who decided the Cowboys were “America’s Team”? (And why do they look oddly like New England’s team? Yes, Drew Bledsoe, Bill Parcells and Terry Glenn are united once more — please do not adjust your set.)
But mostly, all holidays are the same. You get together with the people you were with last year, in a space that may feel more comforting, or stifling, this year, and do pretty much the same things you’ve always done.
Pop Quiz: When was the first celebration of Thanksgiving on North American soil? That’s right! 1578. It was led by Martin Frobisher in (ahem) Newfoundland. Oh, and then there was that Pilgrim thing a little later.
What is it all about? A regularly scheduled reunion of family or friends? A wonderful excuse for a bevy of culinary delights? The kickoff to a four-day weekend?
The rub is that you have to figure out what it’s all about for you.
For FDR, it was, among other things, a way of extending the Christmas shopping season by a week. President Lincoln had anchored it to the last Thursday in November, and moving to the next-to-last gave “the holidays” a hundred and sixty-eight more hours. In 1941, Congress characteristically took the middle ground and established the fourth Thursday as the appropriate choice.
For many Native Americans, the date is to be observed as a National Day of Mourning. Growing out of attempts by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to edit remarks by a local Wampanoag elder at a Thanksgiving re-enactment in 1970, they gather at a site overlooking Plymouth Rock and recall what the arrival of the Europeans came to mean for their ancestors and their way of life.
At times, protests at these events have become violent. It is difficult for me to imagine — just two generations removed from the British Isles —what it must be like for descendants of the indigenous peoples of the “New World” to try to come to terms with what has taken place over the last four centuries.
Controversy abounds regarding the question of how all the attendant issues might be addressed. But it’s much broader than just deciding whether Rhode Island needs another casino. It is good that conversations around all these matters keep happening.
Generically, Thanksgiving has been about expressing gratitude for the harvest. Indeed, harvest festivals around the world have focused on the same theme for millennia. Yet, at its core, it’s more than that.
Thanksgiving is the recognition that much of life is beyond our control.
Some people decide they want children. And when, and how many. They observe all the prenatal precautions in vogue, learn the ins and outs of childbirth, buy the right furniture, CDs and books, and examine the minutest details of parenting strategy.
But even the most precise planning does not allow any of us to know what our children will be like. We don’t know for certain that they will be healthy. More important, we don’t know what will make them laugh or cause them to cry. What will draw their interest, make them feel most alive?
Such things are outside our governing. As are so many pieces of life. Hurricanes and tornadoes, for instance, are standard fare on such a list. But it is so much broader. Who knows how long a marriage will last? Or a friendship? Or a life?
What’s the best way to uninvade a country?
We would rather concentrate on smaller questions. Where will interest rates be in a year? Is Tom Cruise right about Ritalin? Is Brangelina for real?
The more captivating the distraction, the more effective it is. Nonetheless, ignoring what we cannot determine will not make it go away.
Thanksgiving asks us to see things as they are.
I daresay if you consider the parts of your life over which you have had little control, and isolate those that have surprised you in a wonderful way, you won’t need to work at being thankful.
One of my children is at school in Michigan.