I do a lot of explaining. Voluntarily, mostly because I get the notion that Americans Do Things and don’t explain them most of the time, or when they do it’s patronising, and that’s crap. So when I’m asked, or when something comes up, I explain, trying to do it without ‘splaining, except for when people talk trash about American football. (Hint: Don’t.)
Lately, I’ve been asked to explain Thanksgiving.
This has happened more than once, actually–five or six times–and it’s always a little difficult to do. People here know of Thanksgiving because it’s so embedded in American culture that there are tons and tons of throwaway references, but there aren’t really that many films about Thanksgiving. (Probably because the theme of dysfunctional family has already been done for Christmas, and who would watch a film about ‘eating a lot, talking with the fam, and falling asleep in front of the football game’?) Americans don’t need Thanksgiving explained, it’s universal, so mentions on American telly are simply in this sort of tacit context.
Truth is, Thanksgiving is actually really hard to explain without sounding either corny or dull, neither of which really conveys the cultural significance of the holiday. While I’m planning on doing a Thanksgiving guide as a class project, I figured I might as well get some thoughts down in text format, for the folks at home, not only to enlighten non-American readers, but to sort of deconstruct Thanksgiving as modern event for USA people too. You might learn something.
Please note: What Thanksgiving can mean in terms of colonialism and racism could be a whole book, and I don’t feel I can speak adequately on the subject. But at the same time, I don’t want to skip over it entirely; here is a historical overview by Karl Jacoby, and a point by point breakdown of the dominant narrative by Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin on Oyate; additional guides to deconstructing the narrative for children can be found here at Resist Racism. Thanksgiving in its current form is primarily the result of 19th century advocacy by Sarah Josepha Hale…for better or worse.
What I do feel I can talk about is how, in a very general sense, Thanksgiving is celebrated in the US. Please note that this does not address everyone’s experience of Thanksgiving: it merely provides some tangible background information for the dominant paradigm as seen in the media. Wikipedia’s version of things really doesn’t provide a good breakdown, in my mind. So here’s a timeline, with the salient overall points at the end.
More behind the cut.
- Thanksgiving is always the fourth Thursday in November, which means it’s on a different date each year but in the same place anyway. Don’t expect to get anything productive done either in school or the workforce for the three days prior, either. Some people will just bypass this and take the whole week off.
- It’s a really bad idea to travel to or in the US during this week or, even worse, over the weekend after. It’s almost as bad as Christmas, no matter what mode of transit you use. This is my honest advice: Wherever you are, stay put.
Thanksgiving itself can be broken down into three main segments. While ostensibly, it’s a holiday for giving thanks, most of the thanks being given is sort of tacit. More about that later.
- Family: this is a big-deal family get-together time, with less of the religious and gifty overtones of the December hols. Alternately, people get together with non-blood family or with friends; the idea of ‘being alone at Thanksgiving’ is the epitome of loneliness, possibly even worse than being alone at Christmas. Of course, the fact that there are no religious and gifty overtones can be a good or a bad thing: good because there’s not church services and the competitive and fear-based aspects of who got who what, bad because there’s no refocusing target for anger (‘be nice in the holiday spirit’/'think of the baby Jesus’/etc.). Not to mention that hosting a do, making a huge meal, and then cleaning up after it is wicked stressful to begin with. And the onus of that is generally on women…
- Food: Thanksgiving is at its heart a harvest festival, even though I don’t know anyone who hasn’t harvested everything anyway weeks before, at least in Wisconsin. (Frost is, literally, on the pumpkin.) Therefore, the idea is to have a bounteous meal and eat as much of it as possible. The food that’s consumed is a sort of strained homage to the dominant narrative (see above links). In actuality, it’s really more Traditional New England Dinner from the 19th Century. Please note that different people of different ethnicities and cultures will often add in or sub in foods to this type of menu.
The meat of the day is turkey. Usually, a family group will get a whole turkey for themselves. Said turkey will usually be roasted in the oven; however, there’s a trend towards different cooking methods of late, including, believe it or not, deep-frying. Turkey gravy is a vital part of this process, as is stuffing, though apparently actually cooking the stuffing in the turkey is no longer safe.
Several other starchy sides will be available; certainly mashed potatoes, dinner rolls or biscuits or cornbread, and often squash and/or sweet potato pie. Also sides will include veg, usually corn, but also other kinds depending on what people like (I will spare the long glowing ramble about green bean casserole for another time–suffice it to say BEST FOOD IN THE WORLD). Also cranberry sauce, which personally I prefer from a can cut into slices…yes, I have no class.
Dessert is often pumpkin pie. Please note that pumpkin pie should be made from canned stewed pumpkin, which is available quite widely stateside. That said, this year there is a shortage, and apparently yours truly was lucky to get a can from the Bullring Selfridges for near extortionate cost. I have never personally witnessed or eaten a pumpkin pie made at home that was made from an actual cooking pumpkin, it’s just a major pain, especially when you have a whole turkey and a bunch of sides to sort out. Pecan pie is also nice and rather seasonal.
- Entertainment: Well, okay, sometimes said entertainment is watching the backside of your eyelids. More than sometimes. But truth is, even with the family thing and even with the massive cooking job that is usually unfairly delegated to women, Thanksgiving is a day off of the 9-to-5, and therefore should be enjoyed. While there’s often good family conversation, and I went to college with someone whose family members all had to do performances after dinner, there are several traditional methods:
- Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which has the huge balloons going down the middle of Manhattan, much excitement and squealing children and basically kicks off the holiday season. Even if the stores said it started on 1 November.
- Watching American football, as there are usually at least two NFL games in the afternoon and at least one college game. The Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day for years, and this year they play my beloved Green Bay Packers.
- Playing American football, because it’s not snowy yet in most places, it’s not forbiddingly cold, the calories need to get worked off, and sometimes you just don’t care about the teams that are playing but need to get the football in.
- Unless you work retail/food service/cinema, or have no vacation time and work in one of the rare offices that isn’t shut, no one will be in on Friday either. If you do work retail, god help you…because here’s what they don’t tell you on television:
- Said Friday is called Black Friday, the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. The most extreme sales and deals can be found on the morning of Black Friday, usually at some ridiculous hour. Many stores open at 5 AM, and some even earlier. If there are rare items going on sale (within my memory, Tickle Me Elmo and the Wii), people will queue for hours in the cold. It is capitalism at its most raw, and it is not pretty, with crowds gone mad and nowhere to park and lines and lines of people and cars. Last year, Wal-Mart employee Keith Romaine was trampled to death at a Long Island location. That should give you some idea of how bad things can get. Also, Black Friday till takes will generally determine the state of the economy for the holiday season, better than any price index or agency report.
- I personally don’t go out on Black Friday. I did once and have no desire to do it ever again. I like my sleep and it’s better for my sanity. And there’s leftover food, which is a bonus.
DID YOU HAVE A POINT WITH THIS?
After I get through a synopsis of the above information, people usually ask me what’s the point of Thanksgiving as a holiday? In all honesty, that’s truly relative, but using my Amazing American Studies Powers, I’ll try to get to what I see as the underlying theme, regardless of one’s individual modifications to the concept.
People do actually give thanks on Thanksgiving. Maybe not in words, but in actions–the concept of a harvest festival is absolutely nothing new, and is in fact quite near and dear to the human psyche, considering the traditions of harvest-time feasting throughout the ages. Giving and receiving with family/friends, outside of the material goods arena that is the December hols, is critical here, which does go back in some ways to giving thanks. In my mind, you don’t necessarily need to thank a divine power, but you can thank real people and organisations for what they’ve done for you over the past year. Generally, it makes one be glad for a good year, or in the case of a bad year, find any good spots and look forward to the next one with improvement.
The diverse nature of America really is in need of a singular holiday that fulfils this sociocultural need, where religious and filial overtones can be added and removed, where concepts are easily adapted without offence, and people get a four-day weekend before everything goes to hell in December.
Thus, Thanksgiving as adaptable and post-modern American holiday.
(If I missed anything, by the way, please let me know. And, by the way…thank you. For reading the post, I mean.)