When I was a youth, a great deal of care went into the preparation of the harvest holiday meal known as Thanksgiving. A fresh turkey roasted all the day long from dawn’s early light, filling our house with the aroma of the season. We ate mashed potatoes, not sweet potatoes. (Note: the Pilgrims knew neither member of the spud family— I looked it up!) Our plates were filled with rivulets of gravy, potatoes, stuffing, rolls! Carbohydrates were very big. Creamed onions were prepared from scratch along with a pureé of squash. Same goes for the pumpkin and mince pie. Nothing was store-bought. Such a thing would have been unthinkable. We had our traditions. And one of those was that we never tried anything new. That’s why they call it a tradition, Pilgrim.
My mother and grandmother would spend hours preparing the groaning board. And just as traditionally we would sit down around the Thanksgiving dinner table, offer a quick nod to the deity, “Bless us O Lord and these Thy gifts…,” and bolt down dinner in record time. We were never a family to linger over a meal, and Thanksgiving was no exception. No siree. A family feast that took many, many hours to make would be vacuumed up in minutes.
Years later, when I was married, my wife’s eccentric older brother, an ordained minister of some stripe who was dabbling in the corporal works of mercy, picked up an old stew bum at some snake-handling church and brought him along to my in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving. The old boy looked like Popeye. He had a glass eye and a wooden leg and may have been a few bricks shy of a load, for he babbled. He thanked us profusely for our kindness. He was also given to spontaneous prayer. He had stopped drinking but, as they say in the old country, you can take the whiskey out of a fruitcake, but you still have a fruitcake. It changed the tone of discourse at our table that year. But it was in keeping with the New Testament injunction that holds that whatever you do for the least of these you do for God. I realized then that we probably were not doing the right thing by the holiday.
Perhaps the true meaning of Thanksgiving is hopelessly lost in a whirl of selfishness, gluttony and a vulgar spectacle known as football. I am not starving to death. I hardly require a feast to celebrate my good fortune or the fact that I get three squares a day, and sometimes four, and really need nothing except maybe to lose 15 pounds. What about a reduced holiday? Thanksgiving Lite? Is such a heresy possible? What about a day of fasting? Fat chance of that, no pun intended.
Holidays like Thanksgiving are about memories. Drunken uncles and prodigal sons. Fierce arguments. Family member brings odd friend to the table; people do not speak to each other for years afterward. Accusations. Old grudges. New grudges. Petty grievances. Imagined slights. Family life. Can you feel the warmth?
As one ages, the family thins out. One brother lives in Los Angeles. I have not seen him in five years. The other lives on an island on the coast of Maine. My cousins are distant memories and I think that’s probably fine. My parents are dead. All of my uncles and aunts are gone, too. My wife’s kin are far afield. And that’s a fine thing, as far as I am concerned. But she laments our tiny family: only one child, a daughter in her early 20s who lives in Washington, D.C. We’re all alone.
Last year, we invited some friends from France who were living in Baltimore for Thanksgiving. They brought along their adult children, a son and a newly wed daughter whose husband was from Colombia (and I don’t mean the one in Howard County). And they in turn corralled some graduate students from Spain and Latin America. Along the way I picked up a stray Canadian who looked like she could use a good meal.
Dinner was prepared just the way my mother and grandmother would have approved of. Everything was done from scratch. The French may not do Thanksgiving but they know how to cook. We ate at dusk, the long table that seated 14 of us lit only with the flicker of candles and the fire that glowed in the fireplace.
We lingered over dinner for hours! I’m not sure how my family would have felt about that, but it was very relaxing. Someone brought me a very expensive bottle of cognac. Being untutored in these matters I stuck it in the pantry. The French quickly identified this potable. Ooh la la. It was apparently very good. Who knew? Our guests got into the cognac. Dessert and coffee were served.
The night came on and I stoked the fire and the candles flickered and we talked and laughed and lingered in three languages. Most of our guests had never celebrated Thanksgiving before. And with their new faces at our table, and with the French and Spanish being spoken, and the lingering, and the candlelight, the holiday felt somehow foreign to me, too, in a good way, rescued from the realm of family tradition and made anew.