A Time to Redefine Thanksgiving and A Time to Reclaim It

Thanksgiving used to be the single holiday of the year that was a given. Absolute. Sure. Dependable. Predictable. Throughout my elementary school years, our classes were equally divided into Pilgrims and Indians, and we made headdresses and Pilgrim hats to match our roles. Wearing our colorful construction paper creations, we reenacted the peaceful dinner when natives and newcomers, after harvesting their crops, celebrated the bounty by sharing turkey, stuffing, corn, and pumpkin pie as they agreed to get along peaceably and, in harmony, became the first Americans. It was simple. I felt safe. I felt proud. I felt secure.

In those days, Thanksgiving was always celebrated at my aunt and uncle’s home. They replaced their living room furniture with round tables decorated with cornucopia centerpieces and place cards that the kids made. The dining room table could have been a Norman Rockwell cover of “The Saturday Evening Post.” The enormous silver platter, piled high with beautifully carved turkey, was placed at the center of the table, surrounded by equally elegant platters of giblet stuffing, molded cranberry sauce, heaps of yams, green beans smothered with shimmering sliced almonds, tureens of steaming mushroom gravy, and huge amounts of fresh fruit. The centerpiece, a floral wonder of brilliant fall colors, matched the grandeur of the food that surrounded it, and the flames in the candelabra almost touched the bottom of the chandelier’s crystals, glistening above the whole glorious display.

My uncle welcomed everyone, and his greetings always included words of gratitude for the abundance in our lives. He expressed genuine appreciation for the freedoms and opportunities that came with being Americans. As a child, I associated this abundance and gratitude with the patriotism and pride that I learned at school. It was simple. I felt safe. I felt confident. I felt sure.

A generation later, Thanksgiving dinner is now celebrated at my daughter Ellen’s house with her husband and his family. Logs burn in the fireplace. Fall leaves and candles cover the mantle and all of the tables. The sweet aroma of mulled cider fills the air. Different hands carve the turkey. There is stuffing with sausage instead of giblets, mashed potatoes and butternut squash instead of yams, peas instead of green beans, Parker rolls instead of sour dough and always, always, pies. Ellen offers words of greeting and a prayer of thanks. A nod of permission sends the children running from their chairs to play a joyful game of chase from room to room. The house is filled with warmth and a spirit of gratitude and abundance. It is simple. We are safe. We are confident. We are secure.

But at the beginning of 2020, pre-pandemic, I read “There There” by Tommy Orange. By the second page of the Prologue, I knew that I could never recover the simple pleasures of my elementary school Thanksgiving with the innocence that accompanied me all the way into adulthood. I will never again be able to luxuriate in the naïve notions that I carried around for so many years.

“In 1637,” Orange stated, “anywhere from four to seven hundred Pequot gathered for their annual Green Corn Dance. Colonists surrounded their village, set it on fire, and shot any Pequot who tried to escape. The next day the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a feast in celebration, and the governor declared it a day of thanksgiving. Thanksgivings like these happened everywhere, whenever there were what we have to call ‘successful massacres.’ ”

It has been almost a year since I put the book down. The words of Tommy Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, continue to resonate with me as if they were my own: “We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives…”

This year, as never before, America is facing its history and “the memories we don’t remember” have taken root in us. We are stumbling over our fiction and can no longer ignore our truths. We can no longer play Pilgrims and Indians passing the peace pipe in bonds of fellowship and re-enact the planting and harvesting of corn and sharing a meal as a gesture of benevolent generosity. We can no longer pretend that we conquered a land and ignore the people who already inhabited it with a history and culture of their own.

As if that weren’t enough to change Thanksgiving, we can’t avoid the fact that we are in the eye of a pandemic. COVID-19 will not allow us to cloak the historical inaccuracies of the holiday with the traditional feasts and celebrations we are used to. With the case numbers and warnings swirling around us, conversations about Thanksgiving are less about what people are planning than if they are planning to celebrate it at all. Are they going somewhere or are people coming to them? Can they bear to admit to themselves or to others that they are really going to be alone? It is as if by learning what other people are doing, we can be okay with whatever it is we decide to do.

Instead of wondering if we can squeeze extra chairs around already extended tables, if we should buy two turkeys, or one big one and if we should have three pies or four, our dilemma this year is different. We are wondering what is the maximum number of people we can we safely include at our tables, if we should eat outdoors or, if the weather is cool, should we risk coming inside, if we should order out or cook at home, or if we will allow a single person beyond our immediate household to join us.

A year ago, we were in a dilemma about what to do with too much and too many. This year, our dilemma is what to do, period. The limitations of travel and coping with less have dissipated the spirit of Thanksgiving. The lack of resolution regarding our election has heightened our anxiety and upended the anticipation of holiday festivities that dot our calendars between now and the new year. I’ve been wondering if it’s even possible to preserve the spirit of this holiday at all, in light of everything that has been taken away from it.

A year ago, we were in a dilemma about what to do with too much and too many. This year, our dilemma is what to do, period.

My Thanksgiving, I have learned, isn’t everyone’s Thanksgiving and never was. My American values, I am reminded, aren’t every American’s values.

I am keenly aware that the way our family manages COVID-19 prevention and safety concerns may differ greatly from how others are managing theirs.

Sister Diane Donoghue, a fellow member of UCLA’s Gold Shield Alumnae, used to speak in her gentle voice of having “fierce hope.”  I like that expression and have inserted it into my own lexicon of favorites. “Fierce hope.” What better words could animate my thoughts as we enter this season of suspended celebration?

I will repurpose the empty spaces that have been created by the erosion of fabled history, politics, and the pandemic by filling them with fierce hope for aspirational renewal. I will refuel with fierce hope my faith in our country and the people who labor to sustain its promise. I will apply fierce hope that people who step up to dare, care, and share enough will make a difference.  I will ignite my imagination with fierce hope to envision what could be, what can be and what will be if I harness my inclinations and translate them into positive actions. I will seek to partner with others who share the necessary energy to rebuild the bridges that span our differences.

Thanksgiving 2020 will be different from any other Thanksgiving we have experienced. With honesty, we will acknowledge that the Thanksgivings of our childhoods were more aspirational than historic. With sincerity, we will continue to offer thanks for abundance and gratitude for opportunity. We will offer a prayer that all of our tables, whatever their size, will finally and truly become a symbol of what we proclaimed them to be over 350 years ago.

This year, may we extend our hands, our hearts and our minds, and next year, once again, our tables. By then, with fierce hope and a lot of effort, we’ll have started the journey to earning our just desserts: Lots, and lots, and lots of pie.


Rochelle Ginsburg, educator, facilitates book group discussions for adult readers.

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