Giving Thanks . . . Despite It All
In honor of Thanksgiving, this week's essay is about as devoid of snark, sarcasm, complaining, kvetching and partisan political caterwauling as is humanly possible. To do otherwise, it seems to me, would go against both the history and the spirit of this most humane of American celebrations. Many remember the story of the first Thanksgiving as taught in school:
- Of how the first colonists spent the majority of their first year in the New World (1620) aboard the Mayflower, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious diseases.
- Of how in March, of the next year the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English.
- Of how several days later, he returned with another Native American, Tisquantum ("Squanto"), a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition.
- Of how Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants.
- Of how he also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years.
- Of how In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit to what is now considered "America's First Thanksgiving."
Although this story - like most national historic tales - is what one might call "truthful embellishment," it has been passed down from generation to generation largely intact. In October 1789, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26 as "a national day of thanks." In his proclamation, Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from ". . . the Almighty’s care of Americans prior to the Revolution, assistance to them in achieving independence, and help in establishing the constitutional government." Washington's successors likewise made proclamations about a day of thanksgiving. Finally, in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made it official: there would henceforth be a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November. Over the generations, the Thanksgiving table has become pretty routinized: turkey, roast potatoes, yams, cranberries and pumpkin pie - despite pretty good evidence from culinary historians that the first such feast likely consisted largely of mussels, lobster, swans, turnips and native fruits and vegetables. Table "conversation" would have consisted largely of the recitation of Psalms and prayers of . . . what else? . . . thanksgiving.
Today, of course, in addition to the routinized cuisine and ever-present Detroit Lions' football game (this year they take on the Minnesota Vikings at home) conversation consists largely of gossip and, I am sorry to say, political arguments. This year, I am even sorrier to say, politics will likely play an even larger and angrier role around dining tables from Penobscot to Pasadena. Much of it will be salty, snarky, cruel and even personal; it will likely drown out words, expressions and feelings of thanksgiving. Just this morning, I received an email from my friends at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (commonly known as the "D-triple-C") proudly proclaiming "Every grassroots Democrat needs to go into the fray (i.e. the Thanksgiving meal) armed with our FREE guide to Thanksgiving with your Republican relatives!" In urging email recipients like myself to download their pdf file, it went on to proclaim "Its full of facts and figures to fend off opinions on everything from climate change to taxes. In the Trump era, having these conversations has never been more important. And we’re here to help!" What a great way to spoil a meal . . . and desecrate the meaning and spirit of Thanksgiving.
I for one have not - indeed will not - download the file. And for good reason.
It has long been a custom in our home that before we dig in and eat everything in sight, we go around the table and give everyone as much time as they need to express what they are grateful for. We also have a hard and fast rule: NO POLITICS AT TABLE! I for one am thoroughly grateful that on Thanksgiving I don't have to think about - let alone teach, speak, ponder or write - about politics, politicians or civic crises. Thanksgiving is meant to be a day when, like the first celebrants way back in 1621, we get in touch with our higher, more humane angels, and leave our more temporal travails by the side of the road. Don't worry, they'll be there tomorrow . . . along with the turkey sandwiches and cold roast potatoes.
I for one am indescribably thankful for:
- Our family . . . as long-lived talented, accomplished and interesting a lot to be found anywhere. There's not a boring one in life's barrel!
- That despite the fact that many of us in our clan are saddled with difficult physical "conditions," we live, act and truly see ourselves as healthy people.
- For my many, many students at 3 different universities, many of whom are in their eighties and even nineties and still thirsting for knowledge.
- For our granddaughters; there is nothing more beautiful than the untrammeled love and innocence of two-year olds.
- For our pets, whose only shortcoming is that they are not immortal.
- For having been granted just enough wisdom to be aware of how much I do not know, and the ability to find the people who do . . .
- For you, my dear readers, who keep me in line, on my toes and always thinking about next week's essay . . .
Do remember: if you will keep politics away from your table and give everyone the opportunity to express their thanks, everything you eat and drink will be calorie-free.
That's a promise!
Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.
Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone