What is Thanksgiving?

Holidays don’t come naturally to me.

Much like religion and nationalism, I don’t really have the emotional impulses necessary to really get into the idea of a holiday dedicated to eating turkey. Maybe this is just my personal failing, or a side effect of not being a farmer, but either way here I am, grumbling under my breath about how I’d rather be getting stuff done than eat.

Nevertheless, I observe that other people seem to like holidays. They spend large amounts of money on them, decorate their houses, voluntarily travel to see relatives, and otherwise “get into the holiday mood.” While some of this seems to boil down to simple materialism, there does seem to be something more: people really do like their celebrations. I may not be able to hear the music, but I can still tell that people are dancing.

And if so many people are dancing, and they seem healthy and happy and well-adjusted, then perhaps dancing is a good thing.

The point of Thanksgiving, a made-up holiday, (though it does have its roots in real harvest celebrations,) is to celebrate the connection between family and nation. This is obvious enough, since Thanksgiving unifies “eating dinner with my family” with “founding myth of the United States.” We tell the story of the Pilgrims, not because they are everyone’s ancestors, but because they represent the symbolic founding of the nation. (My Jamestown ancestors actually got here first, but I guess Virginia was not in Lincoln’s good graces when he decided to make a holiday.)

In the founding mythos, the Pilgrims are brave, freedom-loving people who overcome tremendous odds to found a new nation, with the help of their new friends, the Indians.

Is the founding mythos true?

It doesn’t matter. Being “literally true” is not the point of a myth. The Iliad did not become one of the most popular books of all time because it provides a 100% accurate account of the Trojan war, but because it describes heroism, bravery, and conversely, cowardice. (“Hektor” has always been high on my names list.) Likewise, the vast majority of Christians do not take the Bible 100% literally (even the ones who claim they do.) Arguing about which day God created Eve misses the point of the creation story; arguing about whether the Exodus happened exactly as told misses the point of the story held for a people in exile.

The story of Thanksgiving instructs us to work hard, protect liberty, and be friends with the Indians. It reminds us both of the Pilgrims’ utopian goal of founding the perfect Christian community, a shining city upon the hill, and of the value of religious tolerance. (Of course, the Puritans would probably not have been keen on religious tolerance or freedom of religion, given that they exiled Anne Hutchins for talking too much about God.)

Most of us today probably aren’t descended from the Pilgrims, but the ritual creates a symbolic connection between them and us, for we are the heirs of the civilization they began. Likewise, each family is connected to the nation as a whole; without America, we wouldn’t be here, eating this turkey together.

Unless you don’t like turkey. In which case, have some pie.

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10 thoughts on “What is Thanksgiving?

  1. “Arguing about which day God created Eve misses the point of the creation story; arguing about whether the Exodus happened exactly as told misses the point of the story held for a people in exile.”

    I couldn’t agree with this enough. We’ve considered how we’ll address the Santa myth with our 2 year old son in the future, and we’ve agreed that we want him to be sure that just because a myth isn’t true doesn’t mean it has no value.

    Like

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