I’m looking at a photo of myself topless. I was 5 years old, playing the role of an Indian in my Thanksgiving Day kindergarten play, red war paint on my chest and cheeks and a paper feather painfully stuck in my head. I don’t remember my part in the play but vaguely recall it not meaning that much to me.
Thirty-two years and many thousands of tuition dollars later, I still don’t know much more than I did then about Thanksgiving’s true origins and traditions. So I did something I never would have dreamed of back then. I Googled Thanksgiving.
This is what we know: some 130 restless Europeans cashed in their frequent sailor miles for adventurous times -– and a helping of religious freedom –- in the New World. The Wampanoag Indians, happy to see the Pilgrims in the way deer are happy to see an oncoming tractor trailer, gave them corn and helped them survive the harsh winter. In return, the Pilgrims gave them small pox. The Pilgrims and native Americans had a big three-day meal with turkey, squash and succotash, then settled back on comfy reclining rocks to watch young patriots run around and tackle each other.
Later-arriving Europeans introduced the natives to even more disease, prejudice, religious imperialism, really bad dancing, liquor, and, many moons later, garish casinos. One generation after the first Pilgrims accepted the natives’ generous help, the two groups were attacking each other instead of turkeys.
The relationship was probably doomed from the start. For one thing, the natives couldn’t be thrilled with being called Indians, based on Columbus’ misidentifying his destination as the West Indies. Only men were on that ship, so you can be sure no one stopped to ask for directions. In fact, ancient Algonkian writings were recently translated to say: “that Columbus idiot couldn’t navigate his way out of a parchment bag.”
Fast forward half a millennium or so, and we’re still giving tribute to both the myth and the reality of Thanksgiving. We carve turkeys, set our tables for guests, and stereotype native Americans. We watch the Patriots and the Redskins knock each other around over a pigskin. And our relations with guests are cordial at first and then somewhat more confrontational after the third bottle of gift wine.
We like to think we’re more civilized than our buckle-headed forefathers, but not everything about today’s Thanksgiving is an improvement. For one thing, I don’t think the Pilgrims would tolerate hours of standstill highway traffic like we do today. Especially with the little Pilgrimettes whining in the back: “Father, have we arrived yet? And willest thou change the radio station?”
In my Maplewood suburban house, Thanksgiving starts with everyone getting up early and watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade on television. We yawn through the marching bands, delight at the iconic floats, and gawk at B-level music stars pretending to sing in a way that makes the Barney kids seem like Vegas professionals by comparison. By the early afternoon, my mother-in-law comes over, signaling a changing of the guard in the kitchen.
Inevitably, someone becomes inordinately worried about the turkey. Is it taking too long to cook? Is it too dry? Is it not big enough? Is it really a chicken? We know the bird is ready for public consumption when my mother-in-law makes her annual appetizing pronouncement: “”Well… it’s edible.”” We then eat and compliment everything on the table for fear of insulting a contributing guest: “This salt is so good and salty! Who here made this salt? And this water is to die for!”
My uncle will typically say something very off-color but howlingly funny, the kids will skip the turkey for cheese sticks and drinkable yogurt, and my Dad will look longingly at the mute television as if it were calling out to him.
These are the modern Thanksgiving traditions – the ones that could only come from dysfunctional families. But we can revere them just like we do the traditions of our de-Mayflowered forefathers, because dysfunction, like religious freedom, selective compassion, and blind patriotism, is very American.
So, this year, in addition to food, health, and high-speed Internet service, give thanks for your own families’ weirdness and idiosyncrasies.
Then give thanks again when everyone goes home.