Thanksgiving: Welcome to the Adults’ Table

Image result for thanksgivingThanksgiving has long been one of my favorite holidays. There are no gifts to buy, no decorations to put up, just a big delicious meal, and a nice long weekend after a light work week here in the US.  The turkey coma is a bonus, and the leftovers are always amazing.

When we lived in Asia, because our kids attended the American school, a long holiday meant we had time to travel to other countries. Our first Thanksgiving in Asia was in Cebu, Philippines. We were on a youth temple trip, and we found a lovely German restaurant that boasted an authentic American Thanksgiving buffet. The food was mostly good, although one dish was labelled “candied potatoes.” It consisted of sliced fried potatoes covered in syrup and hard candies. It reminded me of the types of dishes we occasionally encountered in Asia that had nearly familiar names, but then were not what we expected at all. Our next Thanksgiving we were in Hanoi, Vietnam, and found a fantastic multi-course Thanksgiving dinner overlooking Halong Bay. That’s probably my favorite Thanksgiving of all time, mostly because I didn’t have to cook a thing, and the food was fantastic, even more than usual thanks to a dose of culinary home-sickeness. Plus, there was both ham and turkey.

As a kid, Thanksgiving meant driving 9 hours to my sister’s house in New Hampshire. We usually took a side trip into Boston to see Old Ironsides or into Salem to visit the House of the Seven Gables or the Witch Trials museum. When it came time for the meal, I would be relegated to the kids’ table in the kitchen while the adults had dinner in the dining room. While there were indignities to be suffered at the kids tables (e.g. my young relatives putting peas in their nose, picking through their food or making disgusting noises), the adults’ table was where disagreements might emerge.

Many people find Thanksgiving awkward. There are disagreements over politics, religion, significant others, old rivalries and grievances, or simple generation gaps. With extended families, the start time can be a point of contention as married couples have to navigate a drop in at two different meals. In our house, it’s exacerbated by one son being vegan and another vegetarian, meaning we have to find space in the oven for both a turkey and a tofurkey, plus two versions of each side dish. But conflict is actually the point of Thanksgiving, and why it’s an enduring tradition.

Awkward meals bring us together. There’s a line in Pride & Prejudice toward the end of the novel. Elizabeth Bennett is at Pemberley with her aunt and uncle when her old rival Caroline Bingley shows up and starts throwing shade. Her barbs accidentally wound Darcy’s younger sister, although she intended to insult Elizabeth. At this moment, the servants bring in a tray of food.

“There was now employment for the whole party; for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches soon collected them round the table.”

Image result for angry thanksgiving mealSo it is with Thanksgiving. Maybe that’s why they call it “shutting your pie hole.” We may bring baggage along to these meals, but breaking bread helps us to bridge the divide. There’s even a scripture about Thanksgiving dinner, Luke 12: 34-36:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.  For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.  And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

Although cultures throughout time have celebrated harvests with feasts, this was a tradition that was specifically honored by the early settlers in Massachusetts. Pilgrim feast days often followed days of fasting, and were especially important because they did not celebrate Christmas. Pilgrims always liked to insert a little pain (like fasting and eschewing the more mirthful Christmas) into anything good; they were killjoys. I confess Christmas is also not my favorite. Maybe I’ve got a few drops of killjoy blood in me. I did have many ancestors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Image result for angry thanksgiving mealWe are in a moment of conflict right now as a nation. We’ve had one of the most divisive elections in history, with the popular vote contradicting the electoral college vote. We have a completely partisan divide on articles of impeachment. Tensions are fraught. Back in 2016, right after the election, one of my Facebook friends declared in his status update that if his candidate didn’t win, there would be an actual civil war. I used to babysit this kid. We live in conflicted times. People are filled with outrage and fake news and have access to share their views freely via social media. We can’t unsee some of the status updates we’ve seen. Respect and communication are casualties.

But is it really worse than it used to be?

The American Thanksgiving holiday was truly popularized in 1863. Lincoln asked the nation to come together to celebrate Thanksgiving in the wake of the US Civil War. People in that era were nostalgic about the early days of the Colonies, kind of like how the 80s are popular now. Even though the Civil War was over (with 620K American citizens dead), the war was far from over in people’s hearts. People were angry about the draft laws. Some were still angry about the emancipation of the slaves. There were riots in Northern cities. The themes of conflict then and now don’t sound very different, although the magnitude of the conflict then was much worse. The Lincolns were also mourning the death of their 11 year old son. Lincoln said:

“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity . . . peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.”

In 1864, he made a second plea for Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving:

“I do further recommend to my fellow citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust.”

So a part of Thanksgiving is being humble and coming together despite our differences, also things we are talking about in the wake of the recent election. Certainly if those who fought in an actual civil war could come together to break bread, we can find a way to reconcile those who consume completely different news sources, those whose core values live in opposition to the political party they detest or fear.

In the 1890s, football games were added to the celebration, further adding rivalries to the mix of Thanksgiving traditions. As if natural family conflicts, colonization and civil war weren’t enough, let’s add sports.

By the 20th century, the Pilgrim story began to be used as a way to teach American children how to be good citizens, being thankful and coming together as a community. The myth of early settlers and Native Americans feasting together gave a sense that despite our cultural or political or tribal differences, God brought us together and blessed our labors. The facts of the conflicts that tore them apart were put on hiatus for the meal. What followed and what came before were ignored for the moment. There was a cessation of hostility.

It wasn’t made an official national holiday until 1939, during the great depression. It originally fell on the 5th Thursday in the month, but retailers lobbied for a longer shopping season, so FDR moved it up a week. This led to a partisan divide with 23 states agreeing to the earlier date “Democratic Thanksgiving,” and 22 states sticking to the later date “Republican Thanksgiving.” Republican holdouts sneeringly called the earlier dated holiday “Franksgiving.” In 1941, Congress cracked down on it, officially making it the 4th Thursday. Texas held out until 1956. I’m surprised they ever conceded.

We may feel we are at a unique moment in history, but it’s not as unique as we’d like to think. The same things that have divided us in the past still divide us today: the interplay of racism and the economy, eroding privilege, the controversial status of immigrants, religious views, political divides, and family disputes. But this one meal can give us a break. We can’t argue when our mouths are full.

Despite the indignities of the kids’ table, perhaps it’s better than the civilities of the so-called adults table. Here’s hoping that we can all make it through the meal with our gratitude and humility as a guide, and emerge on the road to recovery as a society, as only a good meal can heal us. If Lincoln held out such hope in the wake of such conflict as the US Civil War, maybe we can all foresee a brighter future.

Let’s talk turkey.

  • Are you looking forward to Thanksgiving this year?
  • Have you had any Thanksgivings that were memorably good or bad?
  • Do your Thanksgivings reduce or revive conflicts?
  • Did you get stuck at the kids’ table way too late like I did?

Discuss.

Comments

  1. “You can’t argue with your mouth full” I love this!

  2. I am looking forward to Thanksgiving this year.
    I have had Thanksgivings which were memorably good.
    Thanksgivings are conflict neutral.
    I was always cool with the kids table.
    Both my side of the family, and my spouses side of the family never bring up politics or religion at holiday gatherings. It’s nice for the lack of division, but kind of a bummer given that I don’t really know what a lot of my relatives think about things.
    Many years ago, when I was in University, I brought a friend to my parents’ house for a Sunday dinner. My dad’s parents randomly showed up too, and after dinner we all played Uno. At some point during the hour plus drive back to campus, my friend turned to me and mentioned that that was the most amazing thing they’d ever seen. I didn’t recall anything amazing and asked what they meant. They said that they’ve never seen a family play Uno and it not end in a fight with hurt feelings. Growing up, every Thanksgiving, their extended family would get together and after dinner someone would break out a deck of Uno cards. Eventually the uncles would get upset with each other and every family would leave angry and upset over the things said during the card game. The uncles would then not talk to each other for 363 days, until all of a sudden they needed to plan the next Thanksgiving. The cycle would repeat every year.

  3. This is the first Thanksgiving I’ve had with my family in the US of A in 27 years! I’ve always been working overseas this time of year, and my most memorable Thanksgivings have always been wonderful gatherings of expats and friends of various cultures coming together. Somehow someone would procure a turkey, or lately, more often than not, I’ve just bought a wonderful Arabic rotisserie chicken and put everything together on the side.

    Also, most of the past 27 years, Thanksgiving was a day we didn’t get off, so some of us would celebrate on the Thursday anyway, rushing home after work to get food on the table, and then most of the time, Thanksgiving sort of lingered over the weekend, with different groups celebrating on Friday, or Saturday dinners. Once we had 3 Thanksgiving dinners with 3 groups of different people, 3 nights in a row. It was so fun!

  4. Wakes usually show up after the boat has passed, but the Civil War had not passed in 1863, or in 1864 either. The success of Union armies in 1863 was probably not a cause for thanksgiving among the Confederates, and the peace that Lincoln was grateful had been preserved was among the citizens of the North (mostly, Clement Vallandingham and his ilk being a small exception) and between the United States and the European power who had stayed out of America’s internal conflict.

  5. We had a nice Thanksgiving as missionaries in Grenoble, France in 1982, held at the sisters’ apartment (we moved our table into the doorway so that the four elders could sit in the hallway and keep the rules!). Couldn’t find a whole bird to stuff, but I found large pieces of turkey which I cooked in a quiche pan, on a bed of stuffing. (I had brought with me a small box of recipe cards, including my mother’s stuffing recipe.) Don’t remember what else we had, or what we talked about, but do remember it as a successful, happy holiday.

    (A few weeks later, I did find a whole turkey for Christmas, but had to convince the butcher to cut the head off. Yes, all the way off, and no thank you, I don’t want it wrapped up with the rest of the bird. But thanks.)

    This year, I’ll be scrounging for whatever I can find in the kitchen, not having gone grocery shopping for a couple of weeks. I think I have everything I need for rice pilaf. Maybe.

  6. Not a Cougar says:

    I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS!!!

    (One of my favorite SNL skits – Happy Thanksgiving everyone)

  7. We have a long way to go to establish a Zion society with love and good feelings toward all. May God preserve us until we arrive there.

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