What if we made this the new first Thanksgiving?
"Different" isn't a punishment. "Different" is an opportunity.
There is nothing more American than Thanksgiving and I mean that in absolutely every single way.
Underneath it all is the seed of an incredible, beautiful idea. A fall harvest festival! A chance to gather with family before it gets too cold and dark! The pagans would be so proud of us. There is absolutely no good reason why such a potentially nice thing has to be jerry-rigged onto a dangerously and insultingly untrue story of how White People Were Friends With Native People, Actually. There is no reason why one’s unabashed affinity for the affair need be correlated with one’s ability to ignore a few inconvenient facts about genocide and land theft.
There is an alternate version of history where we all got a national fall harvest just because it’s a lovely thing and not because Lincoln needed something to distract us during the Civil Way (a real mess of seceding and killing and such that, like millions of other avoidable tragedies wouldn’t have happened if not for that other inconvenient fact of our founding).
There is no good reason for any of this, and yet here we are. We actually have a national secular holiday where everybody pauses at the same time and you’re encouraged to be with your family and the whole idea is framed around gratitude and you get to put gravy on all your food. That’s a wonderful thing! And yet, we live in a country where nothing is unequivocally good and simple because even our best ideas are grafted inseparably onto our worst historical and contemporary instincts.
For those of us on the top of societal hierarchies, the twin messages of Thanksgiving are clear: you should care about your immediate family (again, such a good message) but you are to ignore any pain, death and suffering that either has occurred or is still occurring outside your little bubble (which, of course, is not a sustainable message for a functional society).
So of COURSE we’re here, in 2020, in the Year of All Our Contradictions Laid Bare, where the most loving thing you can do for your family during this holiday season is to stay away from them. Of COURSE we’re in this moment when we are white-knuckling our way through the next few months, hoping that enough of our fellow citizens do the right thing on a personal level even when we have done nothing on a societal level to incentivize, cushion and support them in pausing their lives for the common good.
We are caught here because our natural human desire for small, nice connective things is constantly booby-trapped by a country that has never invested in large-scale, nice connective things.
I have already put too much thought and pre-emptive anxiety into my family’s Thanksgiving meal. It’s my first year in charge of the whole shooting match after an adult lifetime spent schlepping a side or two over to either my mother or mother-in-law’s house. We are not going anywhere this year, of course, and though that’s a bummer for all the reasons you’d expect, it is also really quite exciting. I am becoming self-actualized! I’m on a thoroughly Mid-American hero's journey! I am cooking a turkey in my own oven and serving it to my wife and children!
I really am looking forward to all the planning and the hunting/gathering and the food preparation ahead of me. And yet… and yet… and yet… I am making things far too complicated. There are only four of us, half of whom are young children. My family only really wants to eat mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. And I know this. How then do you explain the tabs that are currently open— the NYT Cooking and the Serious Eats and the America’s Test Kitchen and the like? Why am I insistent on buttermilk brining my turkey? Why am I seriously considering a stuffing with two varieties of bread when I’m the only family member who will eat it? Why did I just watch a Youtube video about something called spatchcocking? Spatchcocking! TO WHAT END?
I suppose that a certain amount of giddy anxiety is and always has been par for the course for a Rookie Big Holiday Meal Preparer. My particular try-hard fussiness, of course, also outs me as a cosmopolitanally-inclined Serious Grown-Up millennial. I am dancing like somebody’s always watching. I am engaging in a specific set of education/class signaling moves, even when there’s absolutely no audience for them. I am, per Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Sum of Small Things-ing everything in my life, including my tiny Nuclear-family Thanksgiving.
I may be a cliche, but at least I’m occasionally self-reflective. And last night, lost somewhere in the tabs and recipes and Youtube explainers it all got too much and I asked “what is all this for anyways?”
If ever there was a year for a reset on this whole affair, it is this one. And though, for sure, I could let up on the pressure I’m putting on myself to present my family with try-hard renditions of Treasured Family Classics, this is not a “let’s get weird and have french bread pizzas and ice cream sundaes” essay. Nor is it a “let’s sit in the corner, do some land acknowledgment and reflect on what we’ve done” Good Anti-Racist essay. Heck, it’s only minorly a “please oh please I hope everybody stays at home because we are literally killing each other” essay (though it is that, because everything these days is that, because it sometimes it feels like yelling into that void is all that we have left).
What I’m actually trying to say is, well, what if we just said to hell with it… this is our New First Thanksgiving. Let’s not ignore what’s come before (more on that in a second), but let’s definitely not celebrate it. Instead, let’s have an anticipatory party for what we’re going to build in the future.
What I love most about a national holiday is that, at least in principle (and yes, of course not in practice, because of capitalism, but stick with me), we’re all entitled to it. There is no means-testing that determines who has worked sufficiently hard or been appropriately grateful before they are allowed to eat pie. The assumption is— this is a nice thing, and we all deserve it.
As I’m resetting what this holiday is all about this year, that’s the first piece of the puzzle I want to hold onto tightly. I want to be immensely happy that as many other Americans as possible might also be happy, both on this day and on future days. I want to remind myself that the blanket of schadenfreude that I might be tempted to pull over myself would feel good for a second and then quickly reveal itself to be itchy and threadbare. I don’t believe happiness should only be accorded to Democratic voters or dutiful-mask-wearers or non-conspiracists or what have you. I think we are all entitled to a nice holiday, even if we’ve been mean and awful to each other.
I then want to remind myself that, if I think we’re all worth a day of happiness, that means we’re all worth a lifetime of it too. And so I want to recommit myself to fighting for things that will help ensure the joy and well-being of strangers. I will wear my mask and stay at home and smile through a comparatively-unsatisfying Facetime with my folks because maybe, just maybe, it increases the odds that all my neighbors, including the most vehement anti-maskers, might stay alive. I will ask that my taxes be raised and my metropolitan area rezoned and my personal “liberty” to look a little different so that strangers I’ll never meet can have healthcare and a lovely little house or apartment and adequate transportation to a dignified job. If they have kids, I want to be chiller about how I parent and where I send my kids to school so that their kids also get to have a full path of loving, free, dream-fulfilling childcare and educational homes from birth through adulthood.
I will remind myself that I want all these wonderful things both for the heroes of our society, the Black and Mexican and Diné community organizers in Georgia and Arizona who just won an election, the doctors and nurses who got one month of “heroes don’t all wear capes” celebration and eight months of implicit mockery, the millions of workers who would love to make the responsible, community-centric choice but whose bosses and government don’t allow them to do so. So too do I want it for even the most loathsome villains, for the grifters and liars who have done such an effective job of convincing somebody’s grandparents in South Dakota that Covid-19 is a myth that they curse the hoax even as the virus robs them of their last breaths.
If I think we all deserve a celebration of gratitude and family and the fact that we’re still standing, then I need to remember that I also believe that we deserve so much more.
That belief, though, is meaningless if I don’t hold equally firmly the second half of the equation. We can not “reset” in a way that ignores or colors over the past, nor that allows us to wallow merely in performative guilt. Yes, we all deserve a fall harvest festival, but we’ve never made right by the sins that created the current one. Yes, we all deserve good, universal programs but if we arrived at our current status quo through killing and kidnapping and looting and stealing from very specific groups of people (that is, of course, Black and Indigenous people), then it’s common sense that a hefty dose of tangible reparations and legitimate reparative justice be part of the equation. As noted before, villains and grifters are still entitled to the same building blocks of a good life as anybody else, but they also should be asked to repent and make right for what they’ve broken.
I’m going to celebrate Thanksgiving this year not for who we’ve been, but for who we are going to be. I will think of all of you (yes, all of you) as deserving of gratitude and rest and care and love because I want us to be at our most whole as we build something better.
I will eat the typical things this year because I personally find those things to be delicious. I may still get too fussy about the whole affair because I hear the buttermilk brining makes your turkey moister and I DO want a cornbread stuffing even if it’s just me eating it. I will do those things for myself, though, and not to please the imaginary version of Sohla El-Waylly that lives in my mind. I will drink both beer AND eggnog early in the morning and will make an absolute mess of the kitchen while my wife and kids get to cuddle and watch movies. I will be sad and angry that my absolute favorite element of this holiday (my parents) won’t be involved this year, but I’ll also be ok with it. I will lean into the difference of this Thanksgiving because actually, our old one wasn’t actually what we deserve. Let’s take the good ideas and throw out the bad, let’s commit to the radical work of repairing for the past while also making something good for everybody.
This is all to say: Happy Weird 2020 End Of The Old Nonsense In With Something New Thanksgiving. I don’t like how we got here. I don’t like that we’re sick and scared and that being together physically puts each other at risk. I do, however, like us… and I really like the world that we’re going to start building.