In the debate over whether or not the “Green Bean Casserole” or maybe the “Yams with Marshmallows” or even the “Jellied Cranberry Sauce” makes it onto the menu for the Thanksgiving feast, it is almost inevitable that someone will say something like, “But we always…” and then proceed to argue that the absence of whatever dish is up for discussion is somehow a refutation of the entire Thanksgiving meal, its traditions, your collective family honor, and even democracy itself.
In response someone will possibly say, “Well, the Pilgrims didn’t…” and launch into a pseudo-history lesson about those black-and-white costumed personages whose historical spirit hovers near every Thanksgiving table.
This exchange—a version of which will be repeated in thousands of households this week—is the Thanksgiving edition of one of life’s most important conversations, and it should be fully accepted as both normal and necessary. At its heart it is the “What matters most?” question, applied to Thanksgiving.
One on side the question about cranberry sauce or no cranberry sauce is really about not leaving behind something important, not losing something of value or becoming diminished by lack of attentiveness to those things that define us.
And like a classic chess move, the remark about the pilgrims is just another way to be reminded that we came from somewhere, that what has happened in our past has real value that continues to shape our lives, and that just the act of remembering is also a way of affirming things that matter in part because we’ve cared about them for so long.
All of this is just one more way of saying how much I love Thanksgiving! I love the food that is served—or even left off the list for a year or two. I love the stories that are told—even the ones that seem as old and familiar as those about the pilgrims. I love the tables of plenty, around which are assembled ad hoc communities of family and friends, of new faces and old, and of vegans and carnivores. (And this is not an exhaustive list, believe me.) I love the whole gravy-soaked affair, right down to the leftovers.
And the reason I love it is because it is all about gratitude. Thankfulness. Remembering, recounting, anticipating, hoping, and proclaiming that even if our list is just that we’ve got the “sun in the morning and the moon at night,” life is moving along and we get to go with it, at least for a little while, at least for another remarkable season.
American novelist Thornton Wilder wrote in an early novel, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasure; for our hearts are not strong enough to love every moment.” As far as Thanksgiving goes, he’s right on both counts: At the core, Thanksgiving is the shared awareness of the treasures great and small that make our lives so surprising and wonderful, and if we tried to have Thanksgiving every day our hearts would become so full of joy and happiness that we might just pop. And not from too much pumpkin pie.
May your holiday celebration this week be all about your treasures. May your feast include all your favorite things. May the seats at your table be filled with those you love and care for. And may the spirit of every Thanksgiving meal since our nation began envelop and affirm this most generous of the American holidays.