Here in the United States, it’s time for another celebration of our national Thanksgiving holiday. Today is supposedly a time to reflect upon the blessings in our lives and be grateful. But if you want the honest truth, that’s not what most Americans do. Forget Norman Rockwell. What does a Genuine American Thanksgiving look like today?
Americans being Americans, the holiday’s origins and purpose, as well as myths surrounding its traditions, are pretty murky. Digging deeply into its actually-rather-convoluted history Is dangerous if you have staked your identity on idealistic innocence and self-serving myths.
A little Thanksgiving Mythology
No, I’m not going to launch into a history lesson. Others have been there before me, including the article I cited above. As for me, I was stuffed full of all the traditional myths when I went to elementary school in Rolla, Missouri in the 1960s. The Pilgrims and the Indians. The happy story about two groups of unlike people coming together over shared bounty. All of it.
I made “handprint turkeys” and cut out Pilgrim hats from construction paper. I participated in a Thanksgiving play, for which my mother was supposed to make me an “Indian squaw” costume (on a day’s notice). I believe I probably had checked off all the cliché-boxes of “Genuine American Thanksgiving Mythology for Entitled Little White Kids” before I hit the ripe old age of nine.
But when I look at the holiday from any point of view other than one of white privilege, it’s easy to see that BS for what it really is. The holiday’s evolution is a triumph of that evergreen-and-currently-faddish American pastime, promoting “revisionist” (more properly “negationist”) history. I would like to hope that by now most of us understand whitewashing the past like that is an extremely problematical aspect of the holiday.
I would like to hope that, but I know better. Because that whole mythology is still an “inerrant truth” of a Genuine American Thanksgiving for a frightening number of white folks.
Genuine American Thanksgiving Food Hypocrisy
We Americans famously subvert the meaning of what we’re supposed to be celebrating on Thanksgiving. Even in my own family, people often seem to feel that the idea of actually talking about what we’re thankful for as a part of grace before the meal is somehow too “cutesy” or “cringy.” Perhaps these normally-liberal people think it would be “virtue signaling”? Whatever, the few times I’ve tried to entertain the thought I’ve been shot down (and not only by the kids when they were teenagers).
Instead, we (as a family and also as a nation) have often turned our Genuine American Thanksgiving into a festival of gluttony. When feelings will be hurt if everyone doesn’t try at least a little bit of everything, the pressure is on. It’s reasonable to enjoy a chance to eat well at what is essentially a harvest festival. What part of “party” doesn’t mean eating special foods, drinking festive drinks, and making merry? But in our appearance-obsessed culture being fat is a sin (or at least considered to be in very bad taste).
Unfortunately, the definition of “fat” is in the highly critical eye of the beholder . . . who will then feel free to judge harshly, no matter how much they themselves weigh. Guilt trips lie in wait like hidden landmines for many of us throughout our Genuine American Thanksgiving. And on into the rest of the holiday season, too.
Family at Thanksgiving
It’s no surprise that Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season can present serious mental health challenges. Traditionally, a Genuine American Thanksgiving comes with a heaping side-helping of stress.
In many American families, Thanksgiving is one of only a few times each year that relatives may see each other. Family members who may live hundreds or even thousands of miles away from each other don’t have many face-to-face opportunities. But on Thanksgiving they often brave modern air travel, snarled traffic, cataclysmic weather events, and more, simply to get there.
Then they crowd around one table (or perhaps the “adults’ table” and the “kids’ table”) in a cramped, overheated place to eat mass quantities of food. Long-haul travelers may be time-pressured and jet-lagged. The cook/cooks are probably exhausted and high-strung from the pressure of fixing all the fancy stuff so it’s ready and at peak tastiness on time. The smaller kids are probably off-schedule, wound up, and sugar-fueled by treats and snacks.
A few Words about Exchanging Words
Emotions are already topsy-turvy, so now it’s time to talk to each other, right? I mean, what could possibly go wrong, after that setup? But what can you say? What can you ask? This part can end badly, depending on one’s mental preparation. Expectations of older relatives, based on standards from their youth, may not mesh well with the lived experiences of younger ones. Sibling rivalries and other past disagreements can surface under the stress. Boundaries can get trampled. Tastes may clash. Understandings often fail.
My own family has not been immune to this. For what seemed arbitrary reasons, the younger girl-children of two successive generations fell into disfavor with certain elder relatives. My sister G. S. Norwood endured that treatment when we were in our teens. And a different elder relative inflicted it on my daughter (and on me, the female in-law) in the following generation. Bottom line: you can’t always stop such treatment, but eventually we found ways to work around it.
Politics and Football
In addition to intergenerational strife, Americans today have an incredibly divided political landscape to navigate. Every couple of years, a Genuine American Thanksgiving comes later in the same month as a major election (if you think the mid-terms aren’t “major” you have not been paying attention!). But in recent years a political system that for all practical purposes makes us choose “either or” between two parties has divided us deeply.
That’s not a problem if everyone in the family agrees on the basic tenets of one party. However, that’s rarely the case. What can we do if someone we love is “on the other side”? Psychologists urge us to remember that there are ways to bridge the gap, if both sides are willing to engage.
And if all else fails, perhaps there’s football. Many families have a strong collegiate or NFL football team affiliation. If all else fails, they still can unite over love of their team, or at least love of the sport. Football has become a cherished Thanksgiving tradition in many households. It can even transcend politics – especially if people are looking for “something else, please!” to talk about.
But what if there still remain a few undiscussed aggressions to work off? Why not get rid of them with an informal family scrimmage in the front or back yard during breaks? It’s exercise in the fresh air, and that can’t be bad. It won’t work for all families, but it works for some.
Christmas Songs Before Thanksgiving?
Oh, great. Yet another Genuine American Thanksgiving “political” divide! There are those who live all year in eager anticipation of seasonal Christmas music. They seemingly just can’t wait for the chestnuts to start roasting on the open fire. They probably feel secret delight that “even stoplights” to blink a bright red and green. And they yearn to pretend that their snowman is Parson Brown. The rest of us would willingly end them if they start that sh*t as early as Halloween.
But after Thanksgiving, it’s a different story (or a lost cause, depending on how you see it). Like it or not, the Christmas shopping season begins about the minute Thanksgiving ends. Never mind that the day after Thanksgiving is by law Native American Heritage Day (as if Thanksgiving itself weren’t enough of an ethnic insult). But more importantly, everybody knows it’s Black Friday.
Make no mistake about it, from an economic standpoint, the Christmas shopping season is huge for American businesses. Time to break out the jingle bells and go “ho-ho-ho” all the way to the shopping mall (or wherever, depending on what buying opportunity best floats your boat). I’m more of a Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday kind of girl, myself, but some people live for the joy of the Black Friday hunt.
You be you, whatever your plan. That, too, is an important part of a Genuine American Thanksgiving. 😊
Once again, I want to thank Artsper Magazine for the history and detail image for Norman Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving painting, Freedom from want, 1943. Deepest appreciation to Reddit for the meme that lampoons Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’ 1912 painting, The First Thanksgiving, 1621. Many thanks for the memes about Thanksgiving food to “Hardcore Italians” on Facebook, and “Bored Panda.”
I appreciate Nate ‘Patchy’ Adams @NateAdams741 on Twitter for the “Mom T-Rex” meme, “Bored Panda” and “tasteslikesarcasm,” @tasteslikesarc on Twitter for the “Family Questions” meme, and Some EE Cards for the “Phone in the Bathroom” image. Thanks yet again to Bored Panda for the Facebook-themed politics meme, and to the wonderful Glenn McCoy (in this case via Reddit) for the “Tradition” cartoon. And finally, thank you to “Bustle” for the Black Friday meme.