Anticipating Thanksgiving

The media have been carrying quite a few stories about people who are dreading Thanksgiving this year. The presidential election didn’t just divide the nation, it has split some families. Discussing politics has long been a challenge for some families. They have experienced disagreements and know that they don’t see eye to eye. There have been arguments and awkward moments as they gathered around the family table. In a sense there is nothing new about this. Based on the news stories I’ve seen there is something, if only a matter of degree, different about this year. Even the BBC did an article, filled with quotes from Twitter, about people who are dreading the holiday. Quartz magazine ran a feature on how to manage “difficult political conversations with people you love.” The New York Times has a guide on how to “argue fairly and without rancor.” The Los Angeles Times advises arriving “a little late so no one’s blocking your car in.” “It’s really hard to storm out of an argument if you have to get your uncle who’s yelling at you to move their car.”

I have friends who have advocated calling the holiday off. The intensely militarized confrontation with peaceful protestors gathered at Standing Rock has disillusioned some and left them without hope of any fairness in dealing with authorities. Recalling the 1621 harvest feast the Pilgrims shared with Native Americans, one friend looked to the celebration of Thanksgiving as the celebration of the illegal seizure of Native lands and the beginning of the attempted genocide of indigenous tribes. One even commented, “I assume Trump supporters will boycott Thanksgiving since it’s a celebration of illegal immigrants.”

Like most other holidays, the story of the celebration of Thanksgiving is complex. The Pilgrim celebration with Natives was not the first such celebration on this continent. There were indigenous celebrations of thanksgiving before any settlers arrived. Gratitude is a virtue celebrated by many tribes. Then, as early as the 16th century French and Spanish settlers celebrated feasts of thanksgiving. Celebrations were routine in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607 - decades before the Pilgrims arrived in what is now Massachusetts. The Pilgrim celebration was a three-day affair to celebrate their first harvest. They had suffered many losses during their first winter and as their second approached, they were grateful for the Wampanoag tribal members who had taught them how to catch eel and grow corn and had given them food during heir first winter in the new-to-them land.

The first national proclamation of Thanksgiving was issued by the Continental Congress in 1777 while the British were occupying the national capital at Philadelphia. Samuel Adams is credited with drafting the proclamation. George Washington issued a similar proclamation in December of the same year celebrating the victory over the British at Saratoga. There were other sporadic and irregular proclamations of thanksgiving during the early years of nationhood.

The establishment of an annual celebration, however, came in the middle of the American Civil War, proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln through a document written by Secretary of State William Seward. Lincoln’s successors followed his example of annually declaring the final Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving, as it remained until President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with that tradition be clearing the fourth Thursday to be Thanksgiving day rather than the fifth in years when November has five Thursdays. It has been speculated that Roosevelt was responding to a push from retailers, including the founders of what came to be known as Macy’s Department Stores, to move Thanksgiving earlier to allow for an extended Christmas marketing season.

Marketing, dates and other issues aside, it is important to remember another thing about the years following the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. In those days national holidays served to provide a forum for bringing a divided nation back together. Say whatever we might about the divisions that mark our political scene today, they are not as deep, not as violent and not as destructive to families as were the divisions of the Civil War that literally matched brother against brother in a violent shooting war.

Chief among those healing holidays were Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. While Memorial Day recognized the deep loss and shared grief suffered by both sides of the conflict, Thanksgiving focused not on what was lost, but rather on what remained.

I am fortunate that I can look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving in a context that will not be marred by arguments fueled by overconsumption of alcohol. Our celebration will be a time to remember the many blessings that we have experienced and an opportunity to celebrate good friends and relationships that endure over the years.

On the other hand, Thanksgiving will not be a gathering of my family, where there are some pretty staunch and emotional supporters of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Some of my siblings are simply not talking to each other in this post election season. It isn’t the first time we’ve experienced intense arguments and differences of opinion in our family.

All of that aside, there is much for which I am deeply grateful this year. I acknowledge that some of that gratitude stems from privileges that I have not earned, but have come to me because of my gender and race. I am fortunate to have been born in a time and place that afforded great privilege to me. I am extremely fortunate to have been blessed with a long-term loving and supporting marriage. We have been blessed with wonderful children who are making their way in this world. Our grandchildren are a blessing beyond measure. While we don’t live close enough to be together for this particular holiday, we have the luxury of being able to travel and to be together as members of our family on a fairly regular basis. We visited in the homes of both of our children this year and our children and their families will be together the week after Thanksgiving before our daughter flies off to her new home in Japan.

Among my holiday prayers this year, however, will be prayers for those who are not as fortunate. I weep for those who are unable to celebrate. I mourn for those whose celebrations will be marred by argument and anger. I acknowledge that our holidays are imperfect.

I pledge to dream, pray and work towards that day when all people will find things for which to be thankful and we can together share a holiday of gratitude.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!