Updated November 23, 2016
This being the United States details are always debatable depending on where one comes from. If ever were there a year that reminded us of that fact, no doubt 2016 has been it. Perhaps if for nothing else, we should be thankful for having so-far survived the upending of political decorum as we’ve known it — for good or bad.
Many a debate proceeding this unprecedented presidential-campaign pivot has been lost to defining details — or lack there of. Not unlike an historically lost reality we share related to this week’s national holiday. Thanksgiving celebrations have occurred throughout centuries, across continents in countless communal gatherings of gratitude. Much as we Americans like to own rights to the tradition, we actually don’t.
In any case, the meal many of us in the United States will gather around this week sources back to the warm welcoming by well established nations of strange looking people who showed up on their shores needy and not speaking in any of their national dialects. The natives opened their arms and hearts to these immigrants, who, in current contexts, we’d define as religious-extremist terrorists. Were president-elect Trump king of the then-Americas, he’d have signed them up to be registered as hostile aliens. If the rest of us were the indigenous citizens of those times, gestures of friendship, like serving them a life-saving meal would have been frowned upon–or worse. Threats, violence and hate crimes would accelerate. If the Internet and spray paint were around property destruction, racial slur and graffiti would have been served up.
None of that was the case, of course. Thankfully, the then-welcoming committee’s methods were far removed from modern-day America’s social and civic norms. Thus, when that underprepared group of immigrants to America found themselves floundering, they were thankful to native citizens here for saving them. That’s what we’re celebrating this year and have for so many generations since.
Because it’s un-American not to debate, it should be noted that this is only the prevailing association we make. There are others, less remembered.
Most Americans associate Thanksgiving with pre-colonized Plymouth, Massachusetts. After a bitter winter killed unprepared Pilgrims, ‘first nation’ who we refer to now as Native Americans brought generous supplies of donated food to the pilgrims and without hesitation gave them life skills to survive in this country: how to hunt and fish, what plants were edible, which were not and the like. A year later, after a bountiful harvest including fish and game, the groups engaged in a three-day celebration.
Their respective leaders joined hands in gratitude for food provided by the earth, the gifts of their labors and the common cause of caring for each other during hard times. This was a multi-faith, ecumenical prayer. The natives didn’t practice this religion called Christianity and the bloodshed associated with the spread of it worldwide. For their part the immigrant Christians were just glad to have been saved by these people whose spirituality seemed on the surface so different. These were forward-looking types, as immigrants of all stripes tend to be. People on a mission oriented towards progress.
Which points up another oft-overlooked detail: the feast doubled as a preparation against future-famine, a shared effort to stock up on food for another brutally cold season.
Of course, there’s debate this communing of such previously inhospitable communities clearly struggling to share a common place was really the first in America.
Some say because First Nation Americans and Pilgrims didn’t dub the event Thanksgiving, it wasn’t. For their part, many Native Americans don’t celebrate the holiday, to remember their ancestors who not only were not invited in advance, but many of whom were not fed at it.
Some give George Washington credit for proclaiming Thanksgiving Day after he became president. Others note President Abraham Lincoln was the one who officially established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to unify the country divided by the brutality of the Civil War.
Still others point out that journalist Sarah Josepha Hale should get the thanks, due to her pestering Lincoln for it with her one-woman campaign to stop the bitter, brutal killings war wrought.
Another lost detail: Hale had already made her heartfelt appeal to four previous presidents.
In any case, much of the essence of Thanksgiving has remained stable. It is a rare example of a civic tradition that has stayed somewhat true to its original meaning throughout the centuries, if with some meaningful and pretty glaring omissions.
Regardless perspective, all Americans agree Thanksgiving is about gathering with others to share and express gratitude. To share non-monetary gifts of self, not to sort, separate or squander individualized bounties on superficial stuff.
It requires no visit to the Mall. No seasonal candy or non-seasonal candy packaged in seasonally themed bags needed. No fireworks, flags, streamers. No noise-makers, themed t-shirts, hats or, er, boxer-shorts to be bought.
It requires only gathering and replicating this tradition our forefathers and mothers set. To remind us of each other, the rich gifts our shared wealth can represent and, which if shared, result in more.
Stuffed hearts, not sparring turkeys
This highly symbolic tradition has the potential to stuff not only turkeys, but, also bipartisan Americans—filling both our bellies and, maybe most important, our hearts.
Bellies that, separated by non-common circumstances suffer, either too empty—or far too full. And hearts that too often suffer in isolation, hardened and separated by non-common superficialities.
Even, yes, hearts that harbor debatable if not inhospitable perspectives that lead them to fight like undomesticated turkeys, or, well you know.
This year, like that deadly first winter the Pilgrims endured, will be more precarious than most. All the more reason to look at that Trump-loving uncle or that Clinton-voting niece across the table not with contempt, but with curiosity. To go beyond hating their views (and certainly them) to seeking to understand it. Since the stakes are indeed life or death, none of this is to suggest politely accepting or condoning un-American perspectives without informed correction. Nor is it to pull out your best social media troll trash gas lighting and ad hominem techniques. Absolutely not. It’s only to say that unless some authentic deliberation isn’t served up with the potatoes and gravy, we’re shirking our duty as engaged citizens.
Staving off civic famine
Come to think of it, stuffed turkeys serve up a rich metaphor usually lost in the telling of Thanksgiving history. Of the shared preparations Native Americans and Pilgrims in Plymouth taught us. Which is that stuffed bellies, be it the turkeys or ours, can be a powerful symbol–and outcome–of our common cause.
That to survive the civic famine we’ve set up for our country, we must all belly up to the table.
We must transcend our differences by stopping the bitter debates, transforming our wealth of diverse gifts and dedicating them to co-producing our future fates: the posterity of our shared country, America.
We can start by making cross-partisan, cross-country preparations to give us all something to be thankful for next year. Including unthawed hearts warmed-up for our common good.