THANKSGIVING. No matter how you carve it, it’s more American than most any other holiday. Ok, so it’s actually uniquely American, like it’s buddy Fourth of July and exists because of the “Birth of America”. Land of the free. That’s why the Nina, Pinta & Santa Maria came to our bountiful shores, right? Wait, the Mayflower. That’s right. It was the clever joke of my childhood that cemented that ship name. April showers bring May flowers, what did the Mayflower bring? Pilgrims, ha!
The Pilgrims were leaving Europe, in search of a land of freedom when they set sail. They must have been desperate to leave the only land they knew, for one unknown. But leave they did, to find one different from the squalor, poverty and confining constraints of a country bent on prospering the few at the cost of the many.
It had to require something as strong as hope to sail across a seemingly endless ocean, crowded together with 132 travelers and crew for sixty-six days and nights.
And then they landed, diminished in strength and health but revived in spirit, stood on the rock, and named their new home from a city in their old, Plymouth. They had been driven there by something bigger than even they knew. Now, they searched the Wampanoag homeland, “unpeopled” in the eyes of the Pilgrims. And set up home in a place inhabited by the Pokanoket village of the Wampanoag people for thousands of years.
Was it worth it? Living on the edge of an unexplored continent, wild and vast? Did they feel free? What did it cost them, those Pilgrim followers with a mission to live in a place where they could practice their religion freely? Did they share that notion of freedom with the First Peoples they encountered?
What did it cost the Native Americans? To not only share the land, but to join with the travelers in a new way of life. We know Samoset and Squanto visited the settlers, which led to sharing their knowlege of the land in order to grow sustenance. And we know that both groups of Peoples celebrated harvest in the fall.
And we know that, while later the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims signed a formal agreement to protect each other from other tribes, there was still the wary, guarded suspicion of one another at this fragile beginning.
The reason for their joint celebration, the one we call Thanksgiving, happened because Massasoit sent 90 of his warriors to the Plymouth settlement to investigate one day, because of the sound of rifles from the settlers hunting, for their own harvest celebration. The Wampanoag realized the Pilgrim’s intent, and wholeheartedly joined the party planning; adding generously to the feast. They threw a party, danced, drank, ate and made merry that First Thanksgiving. And we have learned this in school while making Pilgrim and Native American hats ever since.
There are not that many Thanksgiving movies. Of course, Charlie Brown, a rite of passage for every American school kids, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. But last year, a flick came out called “Free Birds”. If you didn’t see it you probably either don’t have kids under the age of 12 in your life, or you chose to steer them elsewhere.
I admit, I had little hope going into the theater, I guessed it would at most be a 90 minute time killer. The thing is, I loved it. I know it’s animated, and yes, (spoiler alert) I get that there are a race of talking turkeys. But if you can suspend belief for a brief time, (remember my kid’s movie rule Heidi?), you may find that there is more to this than it first appears. Full disclosure: I love Owen Wilson, who is the main (turkey) character. I pretty much enjoy anything he’s in. And, he’s Lighting McQueen people!! Also, I like kids movies, almost as much or more as ‘grown-up’ ones.
Free Turkeys is smart, laugh out loud funny and my favorite part; it twists the narrative of Thanksgiving all around so that we can view it from a fresh (admittedly crazy) perspective. Because where else but in America can you build an entire holiday around food and the bonus package of football (not to mention the new addition of shopping)? #Go Pilgrims!!
So, I wonder, at that feast, where the guest list was composed of two nations still in the new and tentative stage of friendship, what was the atmosphere like? Who brought more to the table? Whose relative made everyone think maybe this party was a mistake? Did they share anything in common outside of land-did language or experience create a thread thin bond?
Or, was the usual dynamic of unequal indebtedness that has invited itself to dine at every bursting table since at play?
In typical American fashion, we have embraced a holiday and built traditions on our version of a story, and in some cases, made its retelling epic in its distortion of the truth.
I’m pro-Thanksgiving, all the way. I vote stuffing and canned cranberries, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and pumpkin pie for dessert, like any other American with gravy running in their veins.
It’s just that, well, how do I put this delicately, I’ve always been a bit embarrassed by thing. Some years more than others, and always at the same time while embracing the basic message and celebrating of the holiday.
I have, over the years, decorated my homes with turkeys and Pilgrims and Native Americans. Which makes me even less comfortable with things. Far be it for me to say how one can and cannot adorn their own abode, and I certainly can’t find one ounce of me willing to judge anyone’s interpretation of a “Great American Tradition”.
I’m just asking myself some questions. Some that have been begging to be asked.
What am I really celebrating? Why does my family gather as we do? Why God, do the Seahawks have to be playing the 49ers, our arch nemesis, on Cali soil no less, on a day I will already have major heartburn and indigestion?
So here’s what I’m thinking, in my own rather small worldview lens. I think that what the Pilgrims did, for the reasons they did, was astonishingly brave, especially given the odds of survival, both at sea and on land. They were convinced the freedom of expressing their faith was worth any cost. And I think that the actions of the Wampanoag were beyond admirable. More like, selfless, and just as heroic as the Pilgirms.
Their feast of celebration of thanks to the Creator and of giving to each other was hard fought. The best of people thrown together in circumstances and decisions that little resembled their dreams.
Which is why I get confused about exactly what feast we are celebrating sometimes, and why.
What I love about Thanksgiving-the long weekend, the colors of autumn, leaves, pumpkins, football uniforms. The gathering of family together from near and far, the glowy version in my memories, and the glowy expectations in my head every year. And I even love the inevitable moment we skid into an uncomfortable conversation.
“Get off your cornucopia!” you say. “The true meaning of Thanksgiving is in the word itself!” “Thank you,” I say, hopping off of my gorgeously arranged cornucopia centerpiece, “of course it is!”
I’ve had a new favorite “thanks” tradition that started in our house three years ago. We get a branch from the backyard-always at the last mintue-write our thankful-fors on cut out leaves and hang them on the Thankful Tree in the middle of our table. We’ve had some pretty notable thankful leaves penned over the years, like Haden’s, the first year of being in our new house and for him a new school at third grade: “I’m thankful for our old house.” And my brother in law’s heart warming, “I’m thankful for bacon.” While thinking about this, I started imagining the thankful leaves my word gifted boys (11,9 & 6) in their current stage may scrawl this year. I may scrap the tree this year.
That leaves the “giving”. Now we’re talking; speaking my love language! And do I love giving my family a huge meal, leftovers and food comas.
Giving thanks is really so personal; it’s personal to us, the people and events and things we are thankful for, are the ones that directly hit home. It’s personal to the ones who receive thanks, because it opens and emboldens hearts to believe and receive the spirit of humbleness and grace given. And then, if we are able, we multiply that grace.
My sister Heidi is in Syndey this year. I told her that I’m just a little overwhelmed with the work of this week. She replied that she would not miss Thanksgiving at all. Of course not, I replied, you ate, drank wine and passed out for an extended afternoon nap every year-what’s to miss?? We enjoyed our laugh over face-time, but I can say, I am really going to miss you, Heidi, this year.
Here’s the deal. We do big in the US of A. What we do now, or don’t do, bears only a faint resemblance to the First Thanksgiving. I imagine it looked and felt less like the fourth Thursday in November twenty-first century, and more like the Hunger Games in many ways.
And maybe that’s why the whole forced concept of gorgeous home, fantastic decorations, happy family, and Pinterest worthy food (that was free with all the coupons you used) feels off to me.
I’ve spent more of my life coaxing the spark of hope than in whispering thanks to the Hope Giver. And truly? I feel guilt. And shame.
Too much. Too much food, not enough I can ever give to those without enough.
Too much health, not enough basic needs to save all the suffering ones.
Too much freedom, never enough keys to unchain prisoners locked in their own personal cells of addiction, mental disorders, fear, abuse.
The older I get, the less I can hide the truth looming behind a painting of a battered ship, with a glowing sunset and a rock.
So it is the very juxtaposition of reality vs. folklore, our country’s, our family’s, our own, that is this holiday in 2014.
Whatever way you and yours are privileged to gather together, whichever version of giving thanks you choose, I pray blessings for you and the people around your table, or on the computer screen, or in your thoughts.
The secret to the meaning of the First Thanksgiving is that all of them were doing the best they could to live out their story, in freedom from fear. The Pilgrims, the Native Americans, and us.
Freedom is not just rallying cry; true freedom shakes off shackles of despair, poverty, and hatred and lights a spark, a flame of hope.
Do not let hope be confined. Be dangerous. Give the traditions that don’t deserve to be passed on a flip, and make a new version of celebrating the freedom to give thanks in your life that means what it needs to mean.