Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving

Autumn and winter have always been my favorite seasons, and the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s holidays my most looked-forward-to time of the year. It is also the season when so many Americans try to make time for family and friends, visiting one another where possible and reconnecting with others by mail and other ways. In the United States, Thanksgiving week usually sees more travel than any other week of the year. According to AAA, approximately 54.3 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving this year (apparently the highest number of holiday travelers in more than a decade).

As everyone knows, our modern celebration of Thanksgiving can be traced back to the early 17th-century English Pilgrims, who colonized New England. According to the familiar story, after the indigenous population had helped the Pilgrims adjust by teaching them critical survival techniques and important crop cultivation methods, they all celebrated a successful harvest with a shared fellowship dinner. In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving, calling on all citizens to place their faith in "the providence of Almighty God," and to be thankful. Since its Civil War revival by Abraham Lincoln, this wonderful American tradition has continued down to the present in this quintessentially American holiday, now celebrated annually on the 4th Thursday in November. Even in this time of conflict and division, this holiday still seeks to unite us all in one common national community, despite its increasingly demeaned status as simply the eve of "Black Friday."

My generation grew up when students still routinely memorized poetry in school. So most of us probably remember 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 perhaps increasingly less clear as society secularizes rapidly), the holiday is also especially 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, being and feeling 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 common dinner table to belong at is problematic for many in our society. Whereas historically, Thanksgiving has highlighted the family table as the place where everyone ought to be able to find a place to belong, the novel phenomenon of "Friendsgiving" reflects our society's increasing evolution in a no longer primarily familial direction

Norman Rockwell's familiar March 3, 1943, Saturday Evening Post cover [photo] 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, but for many in our world - sadly even in our own affluent society - that is still an elusive goal. Instead, 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 of 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 sadly all too successfully sought to liberate us from. 

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