In 2001, I decided not to celebrate Thanksgiving.
I was studying abroad at the University of East Anglia in the northeast of England, and the British don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. When in Rome…. I decided that, without everyone else celebrating Thanksgiving around me, there was no reason for me to make a big deal of it.
Wednesday morning at the crack of dawn, I became suddenly fully awake with the thought, “I can’t skip Thanksgiving! What was I thinking?”
I leapt out of bed, took the bus into the Tesco in town, and bought myself a turkey breast, a baking potato, and a little jar of cranberry sauce. I overcooked the turkey breast, undercooked the potato, and it was the saddest little lonely dinner that I have maybe ever eaten, but it was a Thanksgiving dinner of sorts. I called the family afterwards, though we usually communicated by letters and email, because Thanksgiving is special, even when you’re in a place where it’s not celebrated.
It’s my favorite holiday. It’s always been my favorite holiday. Christmas is nice and all, but it’s so fraught in an atheist family, and Easter even moreso. But I love turkey, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, stuffing, gravy, even the sweet potato is okay, and I adore cranberry anything, especially cranberry-orange relish. It’s a rule in my family that the cran-orange relish has to go all the way around the table before I’m allowed to touch it, because I’ll pile it on, and have even been known to polish off the bowl pre-dessert. And then there’s the pie…. “I’ll have a sliver of each, thanks!”
But most of all, it’s about the people.
It’s about the table, not the food; the people gathered around the long dining room table, and maybe a second kids’ table, talking, laughing, telling stories, speculating about the future together. We aren’t a family that expresses emotion easily, but this is how we express love. We gather together and share food and company.
It drives my partner crazy that we all sit together in one room and have one conversation, instead of spreading out through the house and having a series of more intimate conversations. This year my sister has been commenting on how we all sit together in one room and have too many simultaneous conversations. But it’s the being together.
Back when I worked for a church, I told the minister and Executive Director that I would work as many hours as they needed on Christmas Eve, fifteen or more hours when it fell on a Sunday, usually till after 1 a.m., I didn’t care, as long as they would give me the week of Thanksgiving off to be with family. And the week of Thanksgiving for me will always include the Monday after, which in my childhood home of Pennsylvania is the most sacred of holidays: the first day of buck hunting season. I look forward all year to the extended opportunity to be with my people.
The Problem of Thanksgiving
It’s become part of my Thanksgiving ritual to write, if not a full sermon, at least a blog post about the fraught history of Thanksgiving. While, for me, it is a celebration of family and human connection, it is also fundamentally a celebration of conquest, enslavement, genocide and, perhaps especially salient this year, of pandemic.
If the coast of the New World seemed empty and uninhabited to the Pilgrims and the first colonizers of Roanoke and Jamestown, it’s because the first Spaniards to set foot in Florida a hundred years before, and all the explorers who followed them up and down the Atlantic Coast, had brought diseases that spread like … well, a pandemic across the continent, killing as much as two thirds of the population.
Many of those who survived (and many who didn’t, too) were enslaved. Squanto was only able to assist the Pilgrims so handily in their first winter because he had just recently escaped from many years of enslavement by the British, by which means he had become proficient in English enough to teach the Pilgrims.
We don’t do this story justice. In some ways, it is vastly more generous and beautiful than we were taught in school. I am, not only on Thanksgiving, deeply grateful to the Wampanoag people and Mohegan Squanto who made it possible for my ancestors Elizabeth and John Tilley to survive in their New World. I am also mindful that my other ancestor, Gov. Bradford, was responsible for some of the worst atrocities against those same people.
Wampanoag Wamsutta (Frank) James was invited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to give a speech at an event celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival and then disinvited after the event organizers discovered his speech was one of outrage over the “atrocities” and “broken promises” his people endured.
On the Wampanoag welcoming and having friendly relations with the Pilgrims, James wrote in his undelivered speech: “This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end.”The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story
I try to take this day also as an opportunity for introspection, for an interrogation of my role in the historical and contemporary culture and systems of white supremacy that have been the bedrock of this nation since its beginning, and for an imagining of how I might contribute to a better future.
So, This Year….
Jokes aside, there will be no family Thanksgiving this year. Not for my partner and I. There will be Zoom-sgiving, of course, but no gathering around the same table.
Nevertheless, my partner has decided that I should have, for the only holiday that really matters to me, all the trimmings, even if it’s just for the two of us (and weeks of leftovers, no doubt!)
So, on Sunday afternoon, he quizzed me on my mother’s traditional Thanksgiving spread. How do we do stuffing? What are the sides? How do we make gravy?
Monday, we went to the grocery store and the quizzing continued. What about appetizers? We weren’t just going to wait for the main course, were we? Yeah, we have shrimp and cocktail sauce at home. What about fancy cheeses? What kind of crackers do you eat with that? What do we drink? Is one kind of pie really enough? Forget about “there’s only two of us”! Is it really enough to just have apple pie?
Do we even own a pie pan? A turkey baster? What kind of crinkled disposable aluminum pan should we use for our turkey? Is it worth buying a food processor just to have cranberry-orange relish? Let’s get a can of cranberry sauce instead.
By the end of Wednesday, there was a full fledged project plan.
Like everything about this year, it feels strange, isolated, insufficient, small. Like all the best laid plans, our best intentions won’t go perfectly, but it will be an adventure, a memory we make together, maybe even something to laugh at later.