Thanksgiving and the true gift of traditions

When my siblings and I were growing up, our mother had great go-to phrases when we complained about our sad lot in life. As soon as one of us started a pity party about how unfair life was, and how there are too many people in this family, she would say, “Who should we leave out, you?”

Our Thanksgiving tradition was an annual setting of the table, rooted in a dependable menu of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce (real berries, please), mashed potatoes, creamed onions, green beans, apple pie, pumpkin pie, apple cider, and plenty of time to enjoy all of it. The weather was always cold enough for my brothers to go outside for a game of football with friends and cousins. The first snow of the year might be on the ground, in Northern Virginia there would certainly be snow by Christmas. Our family group at dinner was a good size, with six kids, and sometimes other relatives. We could have walked in and out of a Norman Rockwell painting and not known which was reality. It was a big enough group to learn the meaning of inclusion, a great lesson to carry through life.

Thanksgiving may play understudy for our attention to shopping, but it is the real All-American symbol of the foundation of working for the common good, neighborly trading, and lending a hand in times of need. Each of these were needed to build our economy and our social safety net. They are needed even more to maintain what we have.

There are many things written about the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony in 1621, some by the Pilgrims, some oral histories by Native Americans. The general story is that the Pilgrims, celebrating their first year of survival, prepared a feast. At some point Massasoit, intertribal chief of the region, and about 90 members of his Pokanoket tribe, arrived with spit-ready deer. The Pilgrims invited them to join the feasting, which turned into a days long affair. Shared entertainments included games for the children and adults of both groups, music and dancing, and sports competitions for the men.

One thing that was not on the menu was revenge, revenge for slights real or imagined, revenge for being different, revenge for taking what’s mine, revenge for just showing up and taking up space. Since the Pilgrims were a group of humans there were likely some of those things going on, and with no guarantee of survival stress levels were pretty high, but feast days are planned as rewards. You get to decide whether to set aside grievances or feed them. We aren’t always successful, but setting aside grievances on Thanksgiving is one of the purposes of the holiday.

As one of the earliest European groups to settle in North America, Separatists, the religious faction of the Pilgrims, brought with them the concept of separation of church and state. The Patriots of the American Revolution gave us the break from England and a United States Constitution, which in turn has given us the tools to work together. Thanksgiving reminds me of all of these things, and that, with the exception of Native Americans, we each descend from immigrants of the last 500 years. Having ancestors with the gumption to leave everything behind in their home country, get on a boat, sail for the unknown, build a new country, maintain a social order, makes the ancestors exceptional, and it makes us lucky. Thanksgiving is one day out of the year when we reserve time to consider the bigger picture, to reflect on these gifts, and how we might live up to them.

This Thanksgiving in particular I am grateful for our United States Constitution. Constitutional checks and balances, and the concept of “separation of church and state” came directly from the experiences the Founding Fathers and Mothers had with targeted persecuting and killing fellow countrymen over differing beliefs. To be sure to protect themselves, they had to be sure to protect each other.

None of this addresses the business faction of the Pilgrims, the people sent as and by investors from England. Their goals differed from the God fearing Separatists, but that blend of goals led to a United States of America. Our original motto, E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one” came from joining the 13 colonies after the American Revolution. Just as the US Constitution is a document of expansion, so too is the many in our one country. Nations have reasons to set limits on immigration, ours is a huge nation with lots of, but not endless, resources. There is no reason to set limits on inclusion of immigrants’ cultures or religions. To do that, is to forget and mock our own arrival in this land.

Our Founding Fathers’ and Mothers’ ancestors came to North America as immigrants. Immigration is part of the foundation that supports our traditions. Sharing our Thanksgiving with new arrivals, and retelling of the First Thanksgiving, revisits where we came from, even when we don’t detail the hard parts. Thanksgiving holds our history and traditions in courses and conversations. Sharing cuisines brings stories that enrich our lives. American ex-pats share our traditions in turn when they live abroad.

Gathering at Thanksgiving has no other conformities than our own family traditions — you might debate religion and politics or silently agree that some subjects are taboo. One of my mother’s many messages was that acceptance of others does not diminish you or cost you anything. Learning the lesson of inclusion early in life is not a guarantee of success, I’ve screwed it up more often than I’d care to admit. As a citizen I can say that as a country we have done so too. But we also have successes, a lot of them. Eat that great meal, get some rest. You have another year to practice listening and to be ready for next Thanksgiving.

After all, who should we leave out….

My Thanksgiving essay was written in 2021. It’s now a year later and I am starting to write my annual thoughts on Thanksgiving and the challenges our country is working on.

2022, Every year I find that Thanksgiving means less about a magic picnic in the past. Instead it has meaning for the future. A day for sharing food with friends and family is meaning that can stand alone. At this moment, I am grateful for a country that is learning. We are in an era of raging conspiracy theories. But the flip side is that more and more of us Americans are looking at our history and learning the impact our ancestors’ human behavior had on each other. From this, I hope to learn how to do better with our fellow Americans, and all people around the world. I hope for more Civics to be taught in our schools. It’s myopic for our children to grow up thinking that our country is exceptional simply by getting up in the morning and functioning in a social structure our parents put in place for us. We can only know where we are going if we look honestly at how we got here. It’s as bad or worse than letting our children grow up thinking that food is created st the grocery store. Happy Thanksgiving!

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