Thanksgiving: and Winter is Coming
November 23rd, 2009 by Demophilus
[caption id="attachment_809" align="alignleft" width="215" caption="First Thanksgiving-Brownscombe"][/caption] Tolstoy famously wrote, in the opening lines of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Thanksgiving is a time in this country when we’re primed to think of our families, and I think we have an opportunity to think about our unhappy little family that we call a country and wonder about ways we could all get to happy. If you grew up like I did, you were taught to think of Thanksgiving as happy family time. That was when the happy Pilgrims and the happy Indians of the Northeast got together for those greatest of family traditions: eating until you have to unhook your belt to let the gut out and collapsing on the couch to watch the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions play football, which can be terrible for digestion for any number of reasons. If you look at the various school systems now, Thanksgiving is another opportunity to pile on the mean Europeans who conquered North America for all the terrible things they did to the Native Americans who were here before they showed up. I guess tracing your hand on a piece of paper and using some crayons to turn is into a weird, hand shaped turkey wasn’t enriching enough and we have to get into the old family feuds. If you want to go in depth into history, or probably even just take a shallow surface approach, there were a lot of bad moves that were made in terms of relations between Native Americans and the Europeans who founded this country. But that’s something that there are numerous other more appropriate forums for discussion about than a simple holiday. If you, like me, have tracked the development of cultural myths and legends from Sir James Frazer’s “Golden Bough” to Joseph Campbell and beyond, you’d realize that what is important about these things is not the truth of what may or may not have occurred, but the underlying beliefs that these celebrations are meant to inspire. Since very few people are like me and pore over anthropological analysis on a semi-regular basis, I’ll try to summarize where I’m going here. Thanksgiving was meant to symbolize cooperation by diverse groups and to celebrate how cooperation between those groups provided a bounty of food and resources to enable both groups to survive the terrible New England winter. As near as I can determine, there really was some kind of feast with the settlers and Indians, even if it wasn’t turkey and stuffing, and probably had a lot more fish and venison on the table. We do know that the Native Americans helped provide information about local ecology and farming techniques-who can forget stories of Squanto and the planting of fish with corn to improve crop yield? Do they teach that anymore? My point was, these were two groups that probably got along sometimes, and didn’t get along sometimes, fought sometimes, celebrated sometimes…in short, does this sound like anyone’s family? I thought so. So we create a holiday to celebrate how, if only for a day a year, you put aside your differences and celebrate instead the similarities. God knows there are times when I want to strangle my family. I don’t think that’s out of the human experience. I think the only think Tolstoy missed in the quote above is that the dirty secret is that there are no “happy” families…but they all can manage to be pretty functional, in their own way. So instead of looking at Thanksgiving as a reminder of where families failed, and thinking of the many fights and travails that beset that family along the road, I’m saying we need to look at Thanksgiving as a gauntlet thrown down to put aside those differences in the interest of remembering that on the bottom line, we cherish the notion that people can sit down at the same table, eat some good food together, and find common ground. So whether you look at it as your literal family, or a metaphorical family of the nation, world, community or whatever, take this Thanksgiving as a challenge to be a bigger person. Take a day to look not at where you fight, but where you can get along. Eat good food, one of the last great simple joys (and forget the doom and gloom about what all that gravy and butter might be doing to you), spend time with your fellow man, and remember as Americans that there is more that binds us together than drives us apart. Or at least there should be. There’s another message buried in Thanksgiving that gets lost too, which is why this manner of thinking is all the more important. They didn’t do this in the middle of the summer, when all was rosy on the horizon, they did this staring into the teeth of a New England winter, and they did this when things were going to get tough, to give thanks for everything they had and to say a prayer to ward off what was to come. Because Winter is Coming, and the pack survives where the lone wolf dies.
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