Thursday, November 23, 2017

Over the River and through the Wood

Last night, my mother and I watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which first aired in 1973 and, while perhaps not quite so classic as the famous Charlie Brown Christmas and Halloween specials, has since become a Thanksgiving TV tradition. This morning, we are watching the even more traditional Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

Virtually everyone in my generation, who went to school when we still routinely memorized poetry, remembers Lydia Maria Child's 1844 Thanksgiving poem that begins, Over the river and through the wood, To grandfather's house we go. While the familiar narrative of the Pilgrims and a lot of the language associated with the holiday highlights giving thanks (thanks to whom being increasingly less clear), the holiday is at least as much about being together. Even if it means traveling over the river and through the wood - or nowadays on the road and through the air - the holiday is increasingly about wanting a place at someone's table, actually belonging at someone's table, wanting to be and to feel connected with others. All this is happening, of course in an increasingly individualized and fragmented society, in which belonging at someone's table can be less and less taken for granted. Indeed, even the existence of a dinner table to belong at is problematic for many in our society.

Norman Rockwell's familiar March 3, 1943, Saturday Evening Post cover was intended the depict one of FDR's recently proclaimed Four Freedoms - in this case Freedom from Want. Undoubtedly the original Pilgrims' Thanksgiving celebrated their newly found freedom from want, and for many in our world - even sadly in our own society - that is still an elusive goal. Still, what has characterized our recent history - at least since the catastrophic election of 1980 - has been the widespread propagation of a perverse freedom from community, which for so many has turned out to be the  ultimate un-freedom. Wrapped in sentimentality though it may be, the traditional Thanksgiving trek Over the river and through the wood continues to attract in spite of - or perhaps because of - its radical rebuttal to our officially sanctioned individualized way of life. On Thanksgiving, we ritualize what human beings by nature seek, but which our prevailing political culture (both Right and Left) has successfully sought to liberate us from. 

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