Look at the November issue of most magazines and you get the eerie and somewhat distorted perception that there are two general categories of people this time of year – those who prepare Thanksgiving dinner and those who show up with smiles and special new holiday clothes to enjoy it. Red plaid is good…a bow tie is even better! You might even see recipes for 15 ways to cook a turkey with 85 stuffing variations. The small print includes methods for leaving calories out of said meal or the perfect workout for when you realize you just consumed more food than a family of four should comfortably eat in a week’s time. Tucked into the perfectly posed pictures of perfect families around the perfectly decorated table with the perfectly presented meal is the message that this better be…well…perfect.
I remember Thanksgiving as a child. My grandparents set up a long table in their 2 bedroom, one level, tiny home. It stretched from the dining room straight through to the picture window in the living room, leaving only enough room for the Christmas tree. Dinner had to be early enough so my grandmother could segue between meals from Thanksgiving dinner to Christmas. Immediately after the last dish from the main event was dried and put away, she pulled out turkey sandwiches and Christmas cookies. Her kitchen was small making it a real challenge to bake pies and rolls along with the turkey and a litany of mandatory side dishes. My job was to whip the cream with a rotary eggbeater just before the pie was served, being careful to get the perfect consistency. Not long enough would mean runny cream while too long would make the cream turn to butter. I wonder if this job was made special and important as a means to keep an excited little girl who couldn’t sit still standing in one spot long enough to get the table cleared without tripping over her. As I got older, I was allowed to carefully sort and put away the silver forks and spoons in their velvet lined wooden box. Aunt Helen brought scalloped oysters every year and Cousin Dorothy brought her son’s military picture to set by an empty chair when he was unable to come. Eventually, divorces, aging and ill health forced the tradition to change. My memories remain unscathed. You see, as a child I thought Thanksgiving was a perfect day. Children don’t care if the potatoes are lumpy or if the dog was found gnawing on the turkey when no one was looking. They don’t care if Aunt Hilda had too much wine and caused an epic family meltdown. It’s still Thanksgiving and people have come together for a feast. To a child, calamities can make the day and the memories just that much better!
The tradition of Thanksgiving began in November of 1621, although the history we are taught often passes over an incredible story of unimaginable grace. We typically hear a story about the Native Americans who shared corn, pumpkin and turkey with the pilgrims at a potluck feast. The main focus is always on the pilgrims and how their faith and strength were rewarded as they made a primitive land their home. We don’t often hear the story of Squanto, a Native American who had been abducted by an English sea captain during an exploration of the North American coast in the early 1600’s. Through a series of events, Squanto returned to New England, only to be abducted once again by an Englishman with the intent of selling him to the Spaniards as a slave. Again, he managed to get away and returned home where he taught others this crazy new language he learned while on his ‘adventure’. It gets pretty amazing when you read that he saw the need of the struggling English colonists and helped them learn how to survive in this strange, new place. I mean, these were the countrymen of the people who held him captive not once, but twice. Because of the skills taught to them by Squanto, the pilgrims harvest was a success. In November of 1621 fifty-three pilgrims’ hosted 90 Native Americans at a 3-day festival. It included the celebratory feast we now refer to as “Thanksgiving.”
Now, let’s repeat this story one more time. Squanto, who was kidnapped by two Englishmen on two separate occasions, saw the need in the English settlers dire situation and stepped in to help. When the settlers were able to successfully grow, collect, fish, and hunt for their food using the skills Squanto taught them, they threw a little party and invited those who helped them along the way to come and enjoy a feast. The thing is, our traditions today have very little to do with the first Thanksgiving, other than showcasing turkey. Many Thanksgiving feasts have turned into a time of stress and frustration due to difficult family dynamics. Some find it to be a lonely day with no place to go and no one to share a meal with. Others may face it with sorrow as the once full table is occupied by only a few remaining souls and memories of the past. Our preoccupation with what is required to make the day perfect has skewed what made the first Thanksgiving special. That day was about broken, damaged people who came together as a community in spite of their differences to give thanks to God and – I have to believe – to those who had little reason to help them bit did it regardless…simply because they were people in need. They were thankful to be alive, thankful to have food and thankful that someone cared enough to help them along the way. I doubt anyone even noticed if the turkey was dry.
Maybe we have missed the point of this celebration.