What Thanksgiving Is All About

Thanksgiving Turkey
Thanksgiving Turkey

On Thursday November 25, 2010, ECLA celebrated its very first Thanksgiving under the impressive leadership of Lili Pach and Riana Betzler. Students and faculty alike contributed their culinary wisdom to prepare three golden turkeys and a ‘tofurkey’, a large bucket’s worth of mashed potatoes, and all the essential fixins’ of a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, right down to the pumpkin pie dessert.

There was no official headcount, but the estimate is that 20-30 were happily in attendance. Being a unique celebration of Thanksgiving where non-Americans far outnumbered Americans, some post-food-coma reflection on what it was that just took place might illuminate the community to what this phenomenon of Americana culture is all about. The following are some of my own reflections.

The satisfying and soporific spell of tryptophan has been cast upon me, and its languorous effect is quite welcomed. Let this American abroad take the time to say: today was a wonderful Thanksgiving.

To the non-American eye, Thanksgiving may appear a bit unorthodox as far as holidays go. Being neither of the religious, federal, or Hallmark holiday variety, it remains difficult to place within standard categories of public celebration. Don’t feel alone, however, as most Americans themselves have only an approximate sense of what the holiday is all about.

In point of fact, their understanding of the holiday has been inherited from only a slim number of generations prior who had a seasoned understanding of the tradition. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the end of November ritual became settled.

When you ask an American what Thanksgiving is all about, you will probably receive broad statements about ‘sharing’ and expectedly ‘thankfulness’. But is that it? Is it so simple? Why does it take place at all? After a seminal speech on the meaning of what Christmas is all about, one may expect Linus- from the classic American comic series Peanuts– to be a trustworthy guide on matters of ceremonial significance.

He administers the prayer in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: “In the year 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their first thanksgiving feast. They invited the great Indian chief Massasoit, who brought ninety of his brave Indians and a great abundance of food. […] Elder William Brewster, who was a minister, said a prayer that went something like this: ‘We thank God for our homes and our food, and our safety in a new land.  We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world with freedom and justice.’”

Following this respectful tip of the hat to the ghosts of Thanksgiving past, Snoopy performs as a skilled shuffler and dealer of pre-sliced bread before carving a golden turkey, presumably a Butterball, all the while donning a grin and a Pilgrim’s hat.  Is the meaning of this odd American tradition buried in this scene?  Surely there must be a logical connection between the bounty of Wonder Bread and the proverbial first fowl of the original Thanksgiving, right?

As Linus tells us, the Pilgrims of 1621 certainly did celebrate the triumphs of their first harvest. During his pre-banquet benediction, however, Linus doesn’t expand on just how much this ragtag bunch of religious fanatics and government separatists had to be thankful for. Try putting yourself in their brass-buckled shoes: just five months after their arrival at Plymouth in November of 1620, the population of the original colony was reduced from 99 ‘first settlers’ to a shocking 44, following a brutal winter of disease, starvation, and one may assume- second thoughts about how much they hated England.

That would be like half the ECLA community- the people you see every day- simply dying off over the course of a single term, sometimes more than one per day. Their extreme circumstances and their worldview created a feeling that is nearly impossible for us denizens of the 21st century to fathom. “These were people with the farming skills of Mr. Magoo,” observes Sarah Vowell, historical essayist, “and if that weren’t enough they were religious zealots, so they believed they deserved every misfortune visited upon them, because their beloved God apparently decided their lives should suck just a little bit more.”

After Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims the next summer how to fish and harvest corn, and after the tribe leader Massasoit graciously donated food reserves to the struggling colony, a day of observance was marked to give thanks for all they had been given and for what they had endured. Perhaps if the Pilgrims were a less repressed people we would recognize this day in accordance with the emotion most probably felt after a three-day feast that was still in the shadow of such a catastrophic first winter in a new land: ‘ecstasy’.

Today, the bounty is more plentiful, but its contrast to the daily grind is less pronounced.  We can stuff our turkeys with bacon and pass out in front of a mollifying radiant screen that depicts hyper-fit athletes, paid millions of dollars to provide us with a vicarious conduit to passively experience carnal brutality. On the topic of carnal brutality, a Pilgrim’s tale of his first winter would probably prove him a more knowledgeable subject on the matter. After his day of thanks, he returned to the stark reality that another wintry hellscape was not far off.

For the next week we, on the other hand, can lather Miracle Whip on vitamin-enriched pre-sliced bread with the dark meat of a turkey we had only to purchase at the supermarket down the street. With these indulgences in mind, one may run this risk of painting contemporary Thanksgiving quite bleakly, bemoaning that the message has been lost. However, I would argue that the potential remains. Awareness of the things we have does not require one to feel guilty for indulging in the contemporary luxuries the common man can now afford. On the contrary.

Comedian Louis CK makes a noteworthy observation about today’s world: everything is amazing and nobody is happy. “People come back from flights and they tell you… a horror story. […] ‘First we didn’t board for twenty minutes and then they made us sit there on the runway for forty minutes.’ Oh. Really. What happened next?  Did you fly through the air like a bird and partake in the miracle of human flight?” Imagine the thousands of raucous celebrations potentially to be had after each take off the world over.

If you do feel a bit hedonistic celebrating Thanksgiving, go ahead and embrace that feeling and strive toward understanding the less acknowledged humbleness to be had in facing the vivacious sea of Dionysian ecstasy. I guarantee the Pilgrims were savoring every single subtle flavor of every sumptuous turkey morsel. And if they could have stuffed their turkeys with bacon, I bet they sure as hell would have. As some of us may ourselves be in a new land, or starting new chapters in our lives, learn from history and celebrate what you’ve got.

Whether you’re grateful for the technology that allows you to see and speak in real time your friends and family on the other side of the globe; or the fact that for the price of a cab from Pankow to downtown you can buy a Ryanair ticket and partake in the miracle of human flight and go for a weekend to London; or for the fact that you have colleagues who spend unquantifiable efforts to prepare an absolutely spectacular meal for all our enjoyment- take the time to simply give a nod to it.

When this annual exercise is done right, it can prepare fruitful material for developing enriching meditations; or at the very least, some really tasty meals to share with the good folks around you.

by Logan Woods (PY ’11, USA) 

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