Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving humbug!

After more than seven years in Europe, it's kind of weird to be back in the land that adds "Thanksgiving" to the holiday schedule. I still maintain -- as I said way back in my Tradition! post -- that Thanksgiving is a lame holiday.

The main problem with Thanksgiving is that it's an invented holiday -- one that was invented by people who had little imagination and no interest in having fun: the Puritans. I don't object to invented traditions on principle. (For every tradition, somebody's got to do it first, right?) But it's possible to do it well, and it's possible to do it badly.

Take Kwanzaa, for example. Placing it between Christmas and New Year's was a stoke of genius! The kids all have the week off of school anyway, and are milling around the house just looking for something to do. Plus, having a row of candles corresponding to each day shows good co-opting of other familiar holiday traditions (which is how holiday traditions generally get started). And the inventor of Kwanzaa picked holiday colors, whole slew of craft activities, and a purpose that hits the right spot on the vague-to-specific spectrum for lots of different people to find meaning in it. See? Now that's a well-crafted invented holiday. If I were black, I would totally celebrate it.

(Actually, that reminds me that I'm planning to take up celebrating International Talk Like a Pirate Day.)

Thanksgiving, by contrast, is the fruit of the original "War on Christmas." The Puritans had outlawed the celebration of Christmas for approximately the first hundred years they were on the American continent because it was too pagan, and, well, too dang much fun. I'm not joking, BTW. The Puritans were the real "Burgermeister Meisterburger," literally outlawing fun just because they don't like to see other people having fun. And they introduced Thanksgiving to get people's yearly feasting out of the way early. If Bill O'Reilly were really serious about wanting to stop people who wage "War on Christmas", his first step would be to denounce Thanksgiving.

(Actually that's one point for the Puritans over today's religious enforcers -- at least they didn't come up with that ridiculous "War on XYZ" phrase that's so popular today.)

As a result, the one tradition we have for celebrating Thanksgiving is feasting. Oh, and praying. That's it. And, frankly, when you're living in a society where no one at your table has ever had to go without food, more eating is not a way to mark a special occasion. Special occasions should be marked by doing something different, that you don't do every single friggin' day.

Now I just want to answer (in advance!) the two obvious objections to what I've said: (1) I've somehow missed that other Thanksgiving tradition, the thanking, and (2) Christmas is worse, because it's about eating stuff and buying stuff you don't need at Wall-Mart.

For #1, two popular bloggers have explained how it doesn't make sense to thank random chance (here and here). I would actually take that a step further for those of born into rich countries and other advantages. It's like setting aside a day just to say "Yay, I'm glad life is unfair because I got a bigger slice of the pie than 90% of humanity! And now I will eat it in front of everyone with great relish!"

For #2, the timeless mid-winter festival of lights has morphed and evolved to fit many cultures, including its current consumerist incarnation: "Christmas" (along with its cousin "Hanukkah"). But it is so laden with millennia of traditions that you can find something interesting in it. If you're not a scrooge. ;^)


kuri said...

"Special occasions should be marked by doing something different, that you don't do every single friggin' day."

But we do do something different on Thanksgiving: eat turkey and cranberry sauce.

Varina said...

I can't help but think you are missing the whole point of Thanksgiving, to whit, so that there are two major "family" holidays only a month apart where you eat practically the same meal allowing couples to switch whose family they see for which and avoiding untold numbers of stupid fights. Based on casual observation it seems like most Europeans still observe advent and all the various Christmas-related holidays that they can observe with various branches of their family. I mean, my host family was Jewish and they still celebrated Christmas, St. Nicklaus day, and the epiphany.

Anyway, not that I terribly miss it when I'm not around, but I kind of like Thanksgiving. Mostly I enjoy spending the day in the kitchen with my mom and sister, ostensibly cooking but mostly eating chips and dip and gossiping. Also you can't argue with three different kinds of pie. You just can't.

sam-i-am said...

I disagree with your perspective on gratitude. I think it is not at all about comparison, in fact it's stepping back from Americans' usual attitude of keeping up/getting ahead/working ceaselessly and being zen, in the moment, and giving thanks for that which you do have. And I seem to recall (from before gratitude journals got Oprah-fied) that gratitude leads to positive emotional outcomes like contentment, less depression, etc.

I made a Thanksgiving playlist that reflected this notion. Songs that explicitly expressed thanks, and others that had that notion of zen, and it's remarkably mood-lifting.

C. L. Hanson said...

I had no idea there were so many partisans for this little holiday! Well, never let it be said that I shy away from posting on controversial topics! ;^)

But, seriously, different strokes for different folks -- if you like this tradition, don't let my humbuggery interfere with your enjoyment of it.

Hey Kuri!!!

Of course -- how ever could I have missed that aspect! ;^)

Hey Sabayon!!!

To be honest, I hadn't really thought of that advantage. Growing up, my family always lived too far away from other relatives to get together each holiday, and I've continued this tradition as an adult. So I have no experience dealing with disputes over who hosts which holiday.

I agree that working together to prepare the feast is fun. It's one of the details that showed up in the Thanksgiving chapter of my novel. (I somehow missed mentioning the three pies, though.) Of course (depending on your interests) you can get a bit of the same effect working together on other creative holiday traditions. One of my favorites is decorating gingerbread houses together!

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

I'm totally in agreement about taking time to reflect on the things in your life that you appreciate and feel good about. You're right about it improving one's outlook on life, contentment, etc.

My objection is marking it with a feast -- and in particular, one that celebrates how my family's advantages were built on how the European settlers dealt with the people whose land they (how to put this euphemistically?) um, "settled".

Where's the zen in that? Let's have the family celebrate our joy and contentment in life by having a family yoga session!
(I'm only half kidding...)

I've had this same problem with turning to other familiar traditions to appreciate where I'm at rather than stressing about what I don't have. The following song comes to mind:

When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed,
when you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
and it will surprise you....

etc. How to be content with where I'm at, without bringing in traditions and ideas I don't agree with...?

IMHO, we should have a holiday about the Zen of appreciating your life as it stands. But if it's going to be a made-up holiday anyway, I think we can retire this defective model and invent a better one.

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

Ha. At my family's Thanksgiving dinners, we always go around the table with each person saying what they're thankful for. I always add random crap like "water" and "narwhals." Though this year I added in "mountains" and was actually serious about it.

Our other main Thanksgiving tradition is taking a walk on this one rocky, steep, somewhat treacherous, very fun hiking trail near our house.

MPL said...

Not to be a total grinch, but the yearly Thanksgiving we have is not really related other than in name to the occasional feasts in October that the colonists in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colony had.

Thanksgiving days were done one at a time by proclamation until it got turned into a permanent holiday by our only President who presided over even less fun than the Puritans: Abraham Lincoln.

That's right, Thanksgiving was invented in the middle of the American Civil War.

Speaking of eating too much, the state of New Hampshire had a "Fast Day" up until 1991.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey UFPC!!!

Sounds like a great tradition!

Hey MPL!!!

Yeah, I know that Thanksgiving wasn't declared a national holiday until Lincoln's term. Actually, it makes me wonder when the federal government first got the idea of legally declaring holidays. Also, it makes me wonder whether Thanksgiving is even celebrated in the American South. It seems awfully Yankee...