Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Myth of Thanksgiving

OK, so if you're a fan of Thanksgiving, you may want to stop reading now. Just sayin'.

I can't stand the holiday. Normally I can keep my dislike of this truly "Hallmark holiday" to myself, but after people started getting all up in arms that retailers expect employees come in on Thanksgiving to prepare for overnight Black Friday sales, I decided I had to say something.

FACT #1: Some people have always had to work on Thanksgiving. How many firefighters, police officers, airport and airline employees, transit workers, restaurant and hotel employees, government employees, football coaches, and members of the US military do you know? People don't stop having medical problems, eating, traveling, or fighting wars because it's the last Thursday in November, folks. So it's likely that in those industries and many more, these people have missed their share of turkey dinners with their families. Remember that when you sit down to yours.

I once read a piece called "The Power of Thanksgiving" that I had to translate into French in grad school, and while the words were fairly easy to interpret, one big hurdle is that the French don't understand the significance it has in many Americans' lives. It really made me consider what the day means to me.

For some time now, I've been trying to get my head around why this day is so much more important than others for many Americans. It's become somehow sacred. Our two busiest travel days surround this day. There's no mass rush to be home for Halloween, for example. If you cut away the hype, Thanksgiving is one day and a meal. And yet people travel very long distances to be with their loved ones--and we'll get to that in a moment--for this one day, this one meal.

I've come to the conclusion that Americans are searching for something in this one day: They're looking for nostalgia. They use the day to remember the past, when our families weren't divided by distance, divorce, or dysfunction. Everyone tries for that one day to put aside their differences and sit down like nothing ever happened. My response to that is "Yeah, right. How's that working out for you?"

I hear the stories each year of people making the valiant--in some cases, herculean--effort to use planes, trains and automobiles to find the past. And for many of them, it's a true hassle. I'm not just talking about the travel part, either. What I don't understand is why people feel the need to force themselves to make this annual journey of self-flagellation. For many, the answer is that they feel they have to, that there is no choice. The idea of "obligation" for this day is a ridiculous concept. If you're afraid of making people unhappy, I understand...but whose happiness is more important? That's a decision only you can make for yourself. I am enthralled to hear the stories of the sacrifices people make to be with loved ones on this day and then come back home bitching about how badly it sucked. Put that much pressure on any event or person and it's bound to not live up to your high expectations.

With the economy the way it is, people are lucky to have jobs, and employers are going to want every opportunity to make money. I expect more and more people will be working on Thanksgiving over time. At least it puts (more) money in the employee's pockets. 

FACT #2: You are not OBLIGATED to do anything. If you really dislike spending the day with [INSERT NAMES HERE], then make other arrangements. It really is that simple. You DO have a choice.

Another reason people celebrate Thanksgiving is to show appreciation for the all the blessings in their lives. I am very much in favor of counting one's blessings. I try to do it every single day. And that's my problem with selecting one random day to give thanks for what we have. Shouldn't we do that regularly...like MORE than once a year? I have the same problem with Valentine's Day. Shouldn't your significant other know how your feel about them every single day? What it comes down to is people making the effort once a year, or feeling like they are only OBLIGATED--there's that word again!--to make the effort once a year. Personally, February is not a time of year I would have picked to tell my beloved how much I care for her. She's not a fan of cold weather. And our veterans? I think they deserve a LOT more than one day...personally I'd make it a whole week in June, the same week as Flag Day, or perhaps move Flag Day and make the entire week after Memorial Day about our men and women in uniform.

While November is not a bad time for Thanksgiving--post-harvest and all--you should appreciate all of life's blessings all the time. Yes, sometimes we lose sight of that in the day-to-day rat races that many of our lives have become, but come on...food pantries, humanitarian organizations, and blood banks need help year-round. And with American obesity and its associated conditions--hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease--on the rise, we have shown that we don't gorge ourselves only once a year. In reality, it's the beginning of a six-week food extravaganza, which ends when we resolve to lose the pounds and go back to the gym in January. Then we pull a muscle or two and that is the end of that.

Please understand that I'm not against people celebrating the holiday. Giving thanks and spending time with family and friends is important. But many Americans love the myth of Thanksgiving. Celebrate it, but keep it in perspective. It won't bring back the past, and no, you don't have to go if you don't want to. REALLY. It's one meal and one day to do whatever you want.

I hope you enjoy the day, and whatever you choose to make of it, I hope it is YOUR choice and not borne of some misguided sense of obligation. No matter what the calendar says, count your blessings.

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking about this very thing just yesterday, while I walked to the grocery store and back to pick up a couple things (yes, I was pre-exercising and trying not to pull any muscles!)I was pondering the whole "why are we doing this" question. I decided that Thanksgiving is one of the few authentic holidays we have left, since it is set aside as a day to acknowledge the blessings we might otherwise take for granted. But you cannot manufacture thanks nor gratitude nor warmth. And that's what a lot of us do, as you so insightfully point out. I have done that far too often in the past. As it happens, I am one of those people who would have had a forced "family" gathering, complete with phony conversation and tight smiles and me constantly sneaking a look at the clock to plan my getaway. I was not looking forward to it - not one bit. A couple days ago, it came to a head. The Ex, who I never speak to, emailed me out of the blue to inform me that I "should" come to his house for Thanksgiving - and, oh yes - others present would not want me there, but I needed to be "mature" and go anyway. Well, I ranted a bit to myself about all the ways I was going to tell the Ex to go to hell and stay there, and then I decided.... this has nothing to do with me. Why get spun out about someone else's attempt to impose obligation? I did not respond to the e-demand, and I went one step further and made no arrangements to be with the people to whom I would have directed those tight smiles and phony chit-chat. While on my walk to the grocery store, I reflected on how much I was looking forward to the good company who soon would join me. I spent the day with genuine family, and when we sat down to eat, I sincerely told them how thankful I was to have them in my lives. The holiday actually meant something to me besides obligatory cooking-eating-cleaning. It's a great start to a new approach. I'm going to make a point of staying thankful all year round for all the goodness in my life. Oh, and I am totally with you about Valentine's Day. If you're going to set aside a day to honor your loved one, why not pick the anniversary of the day you met, or some other day that means something besides another Hallmark obligation?

    P.S. I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving! I'm going to dart out of the room, now... ; )