Thanksgiving’s pull on the American cultural imagination has been muted, squeezed as the holiday is between Halloween and Christmas. The allure of Halloween has slowly taken over Europe and far-flung locales, and many communities across the U.S. now hold Christmas parades earlier and earlier in November.
Yet aside from Canada (which celebrates on the wrong day, of course), Thanksgiving remains thoroughly American. In poetry and prose, its meaning has been flexible enough to stay relevant in a growing country without rebuking its roots. Writers celebrate the food, emphasize Christian virtues and gratitude, and play with the dynamic of family conflict and cordiality.
Thanksgiving is a ceasefire of sorts from the chaotic variety of America, as Philip Roth described it in American Pastoral:
And it was never but once a year that they were brought together anyway, and that was on the neutral, dereligionized ground of Thanksgiving, when everybody gets to eat the same thing, nobody sneaking off to eat funny stuff—no kugel, no gefilte fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people—one colossal turkey feeds all.
A moratorium on funny foods and funny ways and religious exclusivity, a moratorium on the three-thousand-year-old nostalgia of the Jews, a moratorium on Christ and the crucifixion for the Christians, when everyone in New Jersey and elsewhere can be more irrational about their irrationalities than they are the rest of the year. A moratorium on all the grievances and resentments, and not only for the Dwyers and the Levovs but for everyone in America who is suspicious of everyone else.
It is the American pastoral par excellence and it lasts twenty-four hours.
Without the religious roots of Christmas, Thanksgiving serves as a pan-American holiday to celebrate country and family. The colossal turkey knows no creed, only love of place. At the table, we are all equal.
Nor is Thanksgiving a time for ostentatious gift-giving or uber-patriotic displays. The American tendency for extravagance, flamboyance, and the ludicrous spares the turkey. That alone is rare. It seems such an unnatural habit that, once we clear those 24 hours, the riot of Black Friday must reassert the usual order of things.
The Anglo-American poet Edgar Albert Guest offered a precursor to Roth’s sense of equality in his poem, “Thanksgiving”:
Out of the sham of the cities afar
We’ve come for a time to be just what we are.
Here we can talk of ourselves an’ be frank,
Forgettin’ position an’ station an’ rank.
Slipping from formal language into dialect (much as the hint of Appalachia in my voice reemerges when I return to Ohio from Philadelphia), Guest portrays Thanksgiving as a respite from the “plannin’ an’ toilin’” when “all the wanderers (come) home to the nest.” It’s a time for the natural and the authentic, rather than the competition prompted by city or career.
Let’s not get too sentimental, though. Thanksgiving can still demonstrate class and social manners, or assert that America does have a culture contra Old World complaints, as in O. Henry’s “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.”
“The big city east of the cranberry bogs has made Thanksgiving Day an institution,” O. Henry writes of New York. “The last Thursday in November is the only day in the year on which it recognizes the part of America lying across the ferries. It is the one day that is purely American. Yes, a day of celebration, exclusively American.” American traditions “are becoming older at a much rapider rate than those of England,” in fact, “thanks to our git-up and enterprise.” A century on, it’s harder to imagine an American inferiority complex over culture instead of the swaggering arrogance, but here we are.
“The Old Gentleman was a staunch American patriot, and considered himself a pioneer in American tradition,” O. Henry writes. “In order to become picturesque we must keep on doing one thing for a long time without ever letting it get away from us. Something like collecting the weekly dimes in industrial insurance. Or cleaning the streets.”
The Old Gentleman’s way of creating tradition was to treat Stuffy Pete, a derelict, to a sumptuous dinner. This year, however, Stuffy Pete had already banqueted at the insistence of two old ladies, whose tradition was to feed “the first hungry wayfarer” passing their red brick mansion at noon. Though “overcharged with the caloric produced by a super-bountiful dinner,” Stuffy Pete valiantly rises to the established way and allows the Old Gentleman to treat him to another lavish dinner. More honesty, less unspoken duty would serve both men well in the story, but pioneering tradition led the way.
O. Henry’s self-conscious comparison of America with the Old World was a departure from other writers who were more self-reflective as autumn set in. The end of November, its disappearing sunlight warning everyone of dark skies and bitter winds, humbles us after summer’s warmth and carefree days. Thanksgiving’s chill leads us to dwell on the gain we have, but certainly do not deserve. As in James Whitcomb Riley’s “Thanksgiving”:
Let us be thankful—not only because
Since last our universal thanks were told
We have grown greater in the world’s applause,
And fortune’s newer smiles surpass the old—
But thankful for all things that come as alms
From out the open hand of Providence:—
The winter clouds and storms—the summer calms—
The sleepless dread—the drowse of indolence.
Ella Wheeler Cox’s “Thanksgiving” echoes Riley:
We walk on starry fields of white
And do not see the daisies;
For blessings common in our sight
We rarely offer praises.
We sigh for some supreme delight
To crown our lives with splendor,
And quite ignore our daily store
Of pleasures sweet and tender. . . .
Full many a blessing wears the guise
Of worry or of trouble;
Far-seeing is the soul, and wise,
Who knows the mask is double.
But he who has the faith and strength
To thank his God for sorrow
Has found a joy without alloy
To gladden every morrow.
Thanksgiving provides a respite, a grace period from the aggravations we bring upon ourselves and others and allows us to remember the past. It is “Celebrated part at table / Part in memory,” as Emily Dickinson wrote.
My own experience of Thanksgiving has shifted in recent years. My parents’ divorce has made holiday obligations more hectic with more visits to make—and more meals that require me to act like Stuffy Pete. Though I’m lucky to have three living grandparents, my grandfather’s near-complete loss of memory makes time with him bittersweet. His frustration at forgetting family members, and my grandmother’s patience to repeat conversations that just started, has been hard to watch. Thanksgiving appears as a clock counting down, rather than one marking time. The passage of time spares no one, even as we cling to traditions to free us of its trials and tribulations.
But while Thanksgiving forces me to confront human frailty and mortality, it’s also a time to watch my younger relatives grow up. Even as the weather gets colder and the trees shed their leaves, there’s much joy in the day. It’s a time of bountiful harvests and tending to tradition. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Signs of the Times” speaks of the
Cidah press commence a-squeakin’
Eatin’ apples sto’ed away,
Chillun swa’min’ ‘roun’ lak ho’nets,
Huntin’ aigs ermung de hay.
Pumpkin gittin’ good an’ yallah
Mek me open up my eyes;
Seems lak it’s a-lookin’ at me
Jes’ a-la’in’ dah sayin’ “Pies.”
In an increasingly anxious and post-religious society, Thanksgiving is a rare secular holiday. It’s less susceptible to the politicization of the Fourth of July and Columbus Day. Counting our blessings and showing gratitude goes a long way toward moderating the passions. Perhaps Thanksgiving doesn’t have the dramatic conflict and feeling of Halloween and Christmas. But it carries a different message of caring—for family, for community, and for the traditions that support them.
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