I have always loved Thanksgiving for my memories of warm family bonding and for the appearance of holiday foods.
When I was growing up, it was a special time for our family, my parents made a point of having our family together at that time. My father’s parens both died when he was in his early teens, and he had many unsettled and unhappy years that followed. He always stressed the importance of family togetherness at the holidays, particularly at Thanksgiving and Christmas. His goal was to give us the stability that he never had.
My Mom, with a little help from the rest of us, made homemade treats that we didn’t have at other times of the year. My Mom made apple pies during most of the Fall with the apples from our backyard tree, but she would add pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving – a rarer, more special treat.
If the Packers played, Dad and a few of the kids would watch, but I loved being in the kitchen. I loved sitting in on the process of cooking: sometimes helping, sometimes just watching, listening, and smelling.
Before we started eating, we would go around the table to say what we were thankful about, and we learned the power of appreciating what we had. We had a comfortable home and plenty to eat. We were thankful for health while remembering family members and friends who had health worries. Looking back, I can be all the more thankful for this upbringing. When we were young, the neighborhood was safe and we had excellent public schools and great parks. Sadly, we watched many of these advantages crumble even as we grew up, and in this age of urban violence and radical cuts to government funding, children in cities don’t have the advantages that we had.
A number of my friends have a more sour view of the holiday.
Some friends see the Pilgrim and Indians back story that was fed to us we were young as a disgraceful whitewash of an event in the terrible dominance of the European Americans over the native people. I agree with this type of critique about Columbus Day. Columbus was an unpleasant man with questionable goals and a brutal method, who launched a campaign of physical and cultural violence against the people of the areas that he discovered.
But much as I love history, I don’t think that our current celebration of Thanksgiving is about a celebration of the Pilgrim’s triumph over adversity to establish a colony or about the long, bitter history of European American domination over the various native peoples. Because it’s called “Thanksgiving Day” and not “Pilgrims Day” or “Colonial Founders Day”, the story doesn’t have to be dominated by any version of that origin story, whether sympathetic to the Pilgrims or the Native Americans. It is, primarily, a time to be thankful for what we have, taken in the context of our own lives.
Other friends, vegans and vegetarians, have bad feelings around the holiday on the grounds that many people fetishize the traditional meal revolving around a turkey, an animal that gave its life needlessly to play this role. It’s also an occasion for conflict and pressure to compromise a person’s food choices based on ethics or health in order to conform to family traditions. I may be lucky that my family has enough respect for divergent opinions that my leaving the turkey off the plate was never a problem for me as a vegetarian, which I started when I was 16 years old. By the time I became vegan, we had gone to a more potluck-style of meal for most family gatherings, so it was easy to make sure that I had some options (even while others were able to satisfy their own cravings for the traditional fare).
It helps that I have learned to cook, and that my family is not conflict-driven. These are things to put onto my list of things to be grateful about.
In our society, people often like to view themselves as victims and focus on what they lack. Flip the channel on the television for a few minutes and you’ll see a dozen talk shows, news programs, police dramas, and reality television shows that will focus on how victimized people are – by the government, by banks, by the media, by corporations, by a cheating lover, by police brutality, by a storm, by cultural prejudice, by the economic downturn, etc. Our cultural mindset has victimhood woven into it, often with a tinge of competitiveness to show who is the most victimized. I don’t doubt that people are treated unfairly and experience awful treatment at the hands of various individuals and cultural forces, but the striving for the badge of Victim status goes well beyond that acknowledgement.
In a way, I think that there’s a common (though not universal) Christian mindset that encourages that, too. There’s nothing more exulted in Christianity than martyrdom. So I think that many Christians strive so hard to be martyrs that they mistake disagreement with government policy for unfair treatment and martyrdom. If overt Christian prayer is not allowed in public school or a Ten Commandments plaque removed from a courthouse, if same-sex marriage or a pro-choice law is passed, then they insist that their rights are being trampled upon. They perceive actions that empower those who are different from them as oppression against themselves. They have to see themselves as Victims and Martyrs, even when their rights to worship, belief, expression, and action have not been impeded in the slightest.
Thanksgiving is a great antidote to that glorification of victimhood. Instead of striving to prove how victimized we are, we will be far happier to take this moment to realize what gifts we have been given. It also allows us to acknowledge the privileges we have – not in order to feel guilty about them, but to know the tools that we to help ourselves and others and to make the world into a better place.
We may face some serious challenges. Other people have advantages that we don’t have. Some people that we are forced to deal with are just downright ignorant and mean. The world is far from perfect. But let us take a moment and give thanks for what we do have, and we will recognize the wealth that is in front of us. I am not saying to stop fighting for justice for the oppressed. Thanksgiving isn’t a panacea that will heal those things. But, the insistence on identifying as a victim is corrosive. It is probably even damaging to your mental and physical health.
Thanksgiving is a chance to remind ourselves what is worth fighting for and what the heartless and dominating can’t take away. We can remind ourselves of what the Gods and Goddesses have given us, and what Nature provides. Honestly, it’s a reminder of the power of gratitude that we should take into everyday life.