SAN FRANCISCO — Thanksgiving is a model holiday. I’d even go so far as to proclaim it perfect. Neither the cynics who snub such sickly Hallmark classics as Sweetheart’s Day and the even more loathsome Boss’ Day, nor the atheists who neglect the faith-based heavyweights at the other end of the spectrum, can deny Thanksgiving’s homey allure. Even those sternly devout folks hard-pressed to show too much affection for even vaguely secular celebrations have little cause to complain; there’s plenty of room for soul-searching in this holiday.
If Halloween is the holiday we young adults outgrow against our wills, Thanksgiving is the one to which we return sheepishly. When I was a college student in rural Ohio, hitching a ride back to Kentucky for the long weekend was a breeze, but now as an impoverished West Coast transplant, I find that option is no longer financially or logistically possible.
Last year, a little lonely and far from family and close friends from the East Coast, I came to that realization and so resigned myself to a tiny, morose affair at a friend’s apartment. It boasted grotesque amounts of food and booze appropriate only for a much larger, high-energy gathering. Tomorrow, my friends and I will have my second Thanksgiving away from our respective hometowns and, in order to avoid a repeat of last year’s dreary debacle, I’m anxious to craft a truly inspired Thanksgiving plan, a process that required me to isolate what it is about the holiday that renders it compelling in the first place.
Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving is only a meal that takes place over the course of a single day, not a season. But what a meal: It links familial bonding with appropriately familiar cuisine and a broader, humanistic awareness of one’s good fortune in relation to that of the vast majority of the world.
This could get quite complicated if we were inclined to let it, but the beauty of Thanksgiving is secure in its warm, gravy-soaked simplicity. After all, it is over in a matter of hours and it can be about only two things: stuffing yourself and being thankful that you are able to stuff yourself. Ideally, you’d be thankful for some other things too and perhaps you should also be equally concerned for the well-being of those unfortunate people who don’t have much to be thankful for. But more often than not, you’re tipsy, your mind is tranquilized by the scent of tasty grub, and you’re in such a delirious rush to cram your belly full, that the goodwill is shoved to the side.
At its worst, Thanksgiving does give way to startling feats of gluttony, family bickering, and indigestion, but these drawbacks are largely harmless in the long run. But, even if you’re one to imbue all holidays with a religious bent, Thanksgiving isn’t a time for feeling guilty about anything. It is soft-focus, family-friendly hedonism of the sweetest sort, and that is why attempts to politicize it invariably fail miserably.
Believe it or not, in some social circles, convention dictates that Thanksgiving’s origins spring from the same colonial seeds as the purported early American predilection for greed, dishonesty, and thievery. As most of us are aware, a common postscript to the conventional narrative describes how the historic friendship forged in fall of 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe fell apart when fresh, more mistrustful settlers arrived from the Old World and spurned the repeated advances of their predecessors’ pals. It has been alleged that this inevitable infusion of new blood put an end to the shared harvest celebration and sparked the first of many increasingly profound rifts in relations between the two groups.
I’m guessing these folks probably mean well, but I for one could use a break from the persistent negativity. Culled in part from my elementary school experiences, my cheerier alternative imagines how the jolly, red-faced Pilgrims wore funny hats and plucked the turkey, the wise, agriculturally advanced Indians solemnly hauled in the fixings, and that, by nightfall, the whole lot had collapsed comically from eating too much. Surely, they lay strewn about the village and forest, moaning pitifully from the same stomach pains we suffer from today.
Clearly, what’s important is not that anyone’s territory was permanently infringed upon, or that, in subsequent years, colonists discovered decidedly less passive-aggressive methods of offending their neighbors. Rather, the point is that, in the midst of a brief but glorious honeymoon period after Squanto’s first corn-planting lesson, we all knew how to pull a proper party. s
This is all well and good but, instead of re-treading Thanksgiving lore to construct simply an idyllic celebration, part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and reinvent the holiday entirely. If Thanksgiving was originally meant to be a meal enjoyed in the company of family and friends, would it be so unthinkable to step outside the box and frame it in looser terms?
For example, my friends and I could take my buddy’s Sable to Los Angeles for sunshine, Korean BBQ at a strip mall, and a few choice nights spent closing down the bars. Another fantasy revolves around an impromptu camping excursion to the Sierra Nevada foothills. While such an alternative would suitably recall the holiday’s rustic origins, I don’t know if I could tolerate a Thanksgiving feast of trail mix, toast, and burnt beans from a can.
However, the components and cadence of the Thanksgiving meal are legitimate rituals potentially more essential than the quality of one’s dining companions. Obviously, any novel tradition established out here on the West Coast will have to strike a balance. Moreover, if I keep the right attitude, the holiday celebration should be worthwhile regardless of my philosophical approach.
Does it seriously matter that no one I know has a table sturdy enough to support the heaped plates and elbows of a sizable crowd? No, it doesn’t. I’ll proudly eat on the floor. And should I care if half of my friends suddenly choose to fly home at the last second rather than participate in an ill-fated revisionist Thanksgiving? Of course not. If they do, they’ll simply miss the best, bitter-sweetly family-free Thanksgiving this side of the Rockies.