I paint life as I would like it to be. — Norman Rockwell
I’ve never been much for American secular traditions, admittedly. Fourth of July generally means that I worry about firecracker-loving neighbors burning the house and/or woods down. Memorial and Veterans days are somewhat remote, having no veterans in my immediate family and being somewhat of a peacenik myself. Christmas and New Year’s I’d much rather skip for a variety of reasons that all center on the value (or lack thereof) of enforced cheer and consumerism. Columbus and Presidents days are just plain silly; no one really celebrates or ponders them, however grateful they may be if their industry allows them a day off.
Thanksgiving, however, I’ve always loved.
It resists commercialism, since it’s about food and family. Yes, there is that famous Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom from Want,” that people resist. But think about the larger context for a moment. The painting is from a series called the Four Freedoms, and also includes Freedom of Speech (a lone man standing up to speak at a city council meeting), Freedom from Fear (parents tucking in their children for the night), Freedom of Worship (a group of people, with hands folded in prayer).
Yes, this is Norman Rockwell and the 1940s. People are white and dressed in accordance with the times. The ideals, however, are still beautiful and the paintings can be redone with a variety of different races, religions and gender at the fore. Their central tenets are still universal.
To return to “Freedom from Want”: it was produced during the World War II, when privation was the order of the day for many across the world. Like the others, it is an ideal: one of family gatherings, where relatives share not only the bounty of their plates, but their company. There is tradition, and an unspoken connection with the ancestors through the elders at the head of the table.
And that’s really what Thanksgiving is: a sharing of bounty, a connection with one’s family and, through them, the spirits of one’s bloodline. Oftentimes, those spirits are manifest physically through recipes, special dishes, traditions.
I’ve heard arguments that Thanksgiving should instead be a time of mourning, of weeping over how Americans fail their ideals again and again, of how we are a uniquely selfish and bad people, prone to slavery, genocide, consumerism.
I argue in turn that every country in the world has a history of genocide, war and slavery. As terrible as that is, it’s the force of human nature: essentially squabbling over land and insufficient resources. This has been going on for as long as there was agriculture and wealth; presumably, hunters and gatherers had little of it, being spaced far apart and owning nothing.
And mythology aside, Thanksgiving isn’t really about that famous dinner between Pilgrims and Indians (which most likely didn’t happen, and definitely not in the way depicted). Thanksgiving rituals were a part of Protestant Christianity of the day: times of prayer to give thanks to God. Now, I may be a polytheist and no big fan of Puritans, but I agree with the idea: We should make thank-offerings to the Gods for the abundance we have been given. Our Pagan ancestors would have understood this mentality, as they did similar sorts of thing themselves: the sacrificial animal given to the Gods, and then shared out in a communal feast.
Thanksgiving is also a harvest festival — ironically of the sort that the Puritans themselves would have attempted to stamp out in their home country, but apparently absorbed because, yet again, it’s human nature. We share the abundance when we have it, before the long hoarding-time of winter. Countries all over the world have similar traditions. You gather in the harvest, then throw a big party when everyone’s done.
That is what Thanksgiving is about to me: a time to hang out with family, feast, and express gratitude for what you have, especially the people you share your life with. Frankly, I don’t see what’s bad about it. The descendants of slaves celebrate it, along with the descendants of kings. Increasingly, these are members of the same family and even the same people.
Yes, Americans fall short of our national ideals. I fall short of my personal ideals, too. That’s because they are ideals: a word that derives from “idea,” from the Greek meaning “pattern.” Dictionary.com defines ideal as “a conception of something in its perfection.” We will never accomplish our ideals because, as mortal beings, we cannot embody perfection. Ideals are Platonic Forms: pure abstraction divorced from the messy mud of life.
These doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive. We are, after all, striving creatures, and we thrive when we have something to aim at. But eternally striving without rest and accompanied by a chorus of voices telling us how we’re failing isn’t the path to Platonism: it’s the gateway to depression, mental illness, despair.
We shouldn’t forget the past, certainly. But we also shouldn’t expect to relive its bad parts constantly, to piss on our nation and each other, to egg each other on to some form of cultural or even personal suicide as atonement. We are descended from both the oppressors and the oppressed, and the lines weren’t drawn as firmly as you may think when you take a look at long-term history. An example: You know who sold my Malian ancestors into slavery? Other Malians. This doesn’t excuse slavery by any means, but it makes the ethical waters a little murkier — you know, more like reality itself, in which no water runs perfectly clear of mud or debris unless it’s been chemically altered.
So, enjoy your Thanksgiving leftovers. You can resume rubbing ashes on your head tomorrow.