Have we decided what the problem with Thanksgiving is going to be this year?
We could start with the base-level perennials — the godawful travel, the risk to one’s diet, the cousin who is loudly certain that someone has slipped gluten into the gluten-free stuffing. There’s typically a grievance against the potatoes: the format, mashed or casserole, whether or not to marshmallow, why is there never enough. Someone has canceled at the last minute; someone nobody invited shows up anyway. At least one child refuses to sit at the kiddie table, the teenagers refuse to put their phones down at whichever table, an uncle insists on watching the football game at the table. The table itself looks nothing like tables on Instagram.
But in recent years, we’ve had particular reason to squabble over the holiday.
For four unforgiving years, from 2016 to 2020, the problem was breaking bread with your political nemeses. Advice columns bristled with agita. How do you handle your Trump-loving father-in-law or the out-of-towners who show up in MAGA gear? “No baseball caps at the table” was USA Today’s Rule No. 7 for avoiding political food fights in 2019. In some other neck of the woods, aggrieved citizens despaired about their Occupy nephew storming in unshaven from his sophomore year at some college “back East.”
No sooner was Trump voted out than we had a new thing — the threat of death — to antagonize the proceedings. With the government urging Americans to stay home, Thanksgiving 2020 was a potential superspreader event extraordinaire — and one reserved exclusively for family members. Were you inviting that great-aunt because you enjoyed her company or because you wanted her dead? Into 2021, the challenge persisted as the vaccinated squared off against the anti-vaxxers, with divided families worried about the full immunological spectrum of their extended entourage.
Also last year and just in time for its 400th anniversary — though one could hardly suggest the issue was new — some raised the pesky question of Thanksgiving’s celebration of genocide. This forced people intent on their pumpkin pie to confront the fact that Thanksgiving is, at root, a commemoration of conquest and subjugation. It is, after all, a day that the United American Indians of New England observe as a day of mourning. The original Native American “helpers,” the Wampanoags, have expressed regret for helping the Pilgrims out in the first place.
Or maybe it all just makes you angry and resentful! What has happened to your cherished American tradition, you wonder? Must everything be problematic?
Nearly every holiday — with the possible exception of April Fools’ Day, but just you wait — has become some kind of political football. The Republican right has been catastrophizing about an alleged war on Christmas for over a decade, though nobody has alerted the pharmacy chains whose aisles are already laden with red-and-green candy. Meanwhile, one poorly chosen wig on Halloween, fraught with potential cultural offenses, can result in social disaster. Please, let it not be your kid who winds up the wrong kind of Disney character! Also in autumn, Diwali, a major occasion for Indians at home and abroad, has lately become a huge celebration across America. But who, some wonder, is allowed to put on a sari?
Ye olden holidays, they are a-changin’. For the past two years, President Biden has issued a proclamation naming the second Monday in October, also known as Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day in order to “celebrate indigenous history and our new beginning together, honoring Native Americans for shaping the contours of this country since time immemorial.” The obvious question there is, what took so long?
So let’s consider the nominees for this year’s chief Thanksgiving gripe: We could make a big deal out of the turkey shortage, for example. Both bird and side dishes have gotten notably more expensive, and with an impending recession, now really isn’t the time. After a summer of exorbitant and overbooked flights that got canceled just as its passengers straggled out of security, travel this year looks to be particularly crowded and unpleasant. And there’s always contagion to fall back upon. With Covid, R.S.V. and the flu all going around, a full-fledged gathering should provide ample opportunity to spread ill health.
But would it be a problem to suggest that maybe Thanksgiving not be a problem this year?
Boiled down to its essentials, Thanksgiving is a holiday about shared gratitude. We could just think about the “thanks” in Thanksgiving for a change. That gratitude may have originally been intended toward God and those Native Americans who helped the newly arrived colonists survive — and for whom atonement may have been more appropriate. But even for us secular humanists, Thanksgiving offers a moment to appreciate whatever good this year wrought, even if by accident or chance.
I can think of a few things to feel thankful for. As vexing as this country can be, the midterms ended with a semblance of democracy still intact. The Democrats retained the Senate, striking a necessary blow against insanity. And while Sarah Huckabee Sanders was somehow considered a suitable person to run an entire state, Wes Moore, the accomplished author of five books and a promising leader, was elected to lead another. Elon Musk has sent Twitter twisting and shrieking toward the hellish oblivion where it belongs. Every year, more people seem to recognize the wisdom of spatchcocking their turkeys. And the Little Pie Company, whose sour cream apple walnut pie I’ve been worshiping since high school, now ships nationwide. If nothing else, for many Americans, it’s a four-day weekend. I’ll spend mine grateful for any leftovers.
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