(Due to the holiday, this is a repost from previous years, edited and updated.)
Today is Thanksgiving Day in the US. For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get accustomed to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as a child as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for a big family reunion on this occasion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.
But over time, I have warmed to Thanksgiving and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.
The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn’t repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. While Thanksgiving proclamations were issued by various presidents at various times, the modern Thanksgiving tradition was an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War and began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day and a national holiday.
Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick-off for that revolting shopping orgy, but not too close or people won’t have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.
I mainly like the fact that the holiday has managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations. Dressing up is not required. Although the holiday’s roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered need not be overtly religious but are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now mostly secular.
Thanksgiving is a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without worrying too much about the cost. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness, at least not at the functions I have attended.
Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?
The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it also serves as the kickoff to the annual horror show known as the “Christmas shopping season” which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.
Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers camping out in the cold for days in order to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. This process is egged on by giving cute names like “Black Friday” (which has now become Black Thursday since stores are now opening on that day too) and “Cyber Monday” and more recently “Small Business Saturday” (when you are supposed to shop at local businesses), and “Mobile Tuesday” (where sales are offered online on mobile devices).
I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has, with gift exchanges, greeting cards and the like, but it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope. There is an air of forced jollity about Christmas that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. We should continue to use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned art of socializing.
So Happy Thanksgiving everyone!