It’s that time of year again – at least it is here Stateside – when the fortunate among us can barely waddle from couch to refrigerator without mechanical assistance or the aid of kind strangers. We call it Thanksgiving, and with some irony, this is the one day on the calendar when the entire country actually does what President Barack Obama would have us do: take a breather and be nice to each other.
Welcome to the United States, have a great time, grab a seat, it’s Genocide Appreciation Day, let’s stuff ourselves till daddy’s mom jeans cleave asunder like twin planets of blubber newly free to flee the surly bonds of earth. Shooting stuff comes after dinner, if there is an after and provided there’s no schedule conflict with the SuperCenter bargain sale, two souls for the price of one and damn, did you see that TV?
It’s actually nothing like that, outside of certain counties notable for a population possessed of more tattoos than teeth.
Thanksgiving is a day set apart, a day to be spent with those we cherish, are bound to by blood or love, a day to open our homes to all who might come, be they the oldest of friends or complete strangers. There will of course be food in amounts that should give the unwary some understanding of our mysterious national affinity for gluttony and excess. Our tables groan under mountains of meat rising like so many cliffs over a contested ocean rolling with enough edible matter to sustain small tribes through the harshest winter and well into summer. Edible matter is a loose definition, obviously; suffice it to say that to some it includes the atrocity of sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows. No, really, that’s a thing; cause to be shown the door in my house to be sure, enough to break all bonds of fellowship, but I’m told it exists.
As to dessert, well, may God have mercy on your soul. The newest arrival to the table is the piecaken, a mythical beast born when you stuff various pies into a cake and eat the result, at a cool three thousand calories a slice.
All that is there for a reason: to feed all who might sit at the common table by habit, choice, invitation or accident. Aside from a liturgy usually absent, every family making its own traditions, the closest analogue to an American Thanksgiving is the Passover of the Jewish people, the Pesach feast held to give thanks for a release from bondage.
Which in some ways Thanksgiving is. Mythology draws a direct line from the pilgrim fathers dropping anchor in 1621 off Plymouth Rock, gamely proceeding to nearly starve, only to be rescued by nearby Indian tribes. In gratitude, they held a feast notable for its inclusion of these Indian neighbors.
There is a grain of truth to that story shrouded in myth, even setting aside that the dour Calvinists of this first green shoot of a nascent New England had little taste for the festive, let alone gratitude to their one-time dinner guests in sufficient measure as to spare them the genocide that followed; however, the real story of this particular holiday takes off in the obscene bloodletting of the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln wanted a day when warring families could sit down as one, ask each other for mercy and forgiveness, qualities not much in evidence at a time when battlefields soaked up the blood of ultimately six hundred thousand dead.
To this day, Thanksgiving happens by Presidential proclamation.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 26, 2015, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together -- whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors -- and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.
Hardly an auspicious beginning, one would think, but it worked, continues to work. Yes, the day involves gluttony, quite freely if the truth be known, but it is mainly a celebration of love and human kindness. It doesn’t mark the birth of some great man or the end of some awful slaughter, no Royal accession or imperial conquest; it’s there for that most elemental thing, a group of people sharing a common meal as a family, a measure of plenty after a season of want in a forbidding new country untamed at first glance, filled with hope nonetheless.
There’s no glory to be found, no braying trumpets, not a victory march in sight. There are days for that, this is not one of them. The humble pilgrim mythology of it doesn’t lend itself to grandeur. Or to exclusion; Thanksgiving tends to be the first holiday taken up by new immigrants, a literal first seat at the table of brotherhood. The day is expansive, generous enough to have room for all, native-born and new arrival, gay or straight, rich and poor. Whatever our circumstances, we all share in this one bond: we have something, no matter how small it may be, to be thankful for.
This is ultimately where we come from, the true birth of America as a nation. Here, have some pie. Go ahead, there’s more where that came from.