This year I am not able to go home for Thanksgiving. It is only the second time in my life that I’ve been away from my family for this holiday. I’m less sad about the actual day than I am about missing the company of my mom, dad, sister and brother-in-law. The more I think about it, what I miss most are the multi-family meals that my family would host during my childhood. My family joined forces with a family down the street. For one day we were a giant family; everyone there felt like they belonged.
I’m not going to celebrate on the exact date, and I’m not going to gather with my family. This year I’m spending time with a chosen family: other graduate students who, like me, are not able to go home. While most people are eating their leftovers, my friends and I will be cooking, talking and hopefully taking long walks along the Maine coastline.
I’ll admit that the whole “thanksgiving” holiday as a piece of history doesn’t sit right with me. For starters: as the Smithsonian Magazine writes, the Wampanoag people were the indigenous group that gave the pilgrims a meal at Plymouth in 1620. Following that meal, for the next 50 years, the Wampanoag experienced an abuse of their natural resources, disease, and encroaching expansion of the Europeans. This tension culminated in King Philip’s War. The Wampanoag people never recovered. For the Wampanoag, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, not celebration.
The day was not officially made a holiday until the Civil War, when President Lincoln hoped that the celebration would help foster unity in a divided nation. So, criticizing the history of Thanksgiving is not an assault on American history: the holiday was not originally celebrated with a meal until 1830. Europeans in America actually fasted and prayed during that time. The development of Thanksgiving into what it is today was a slow burn, fueled by political changes, and issues such as imigration, American identity and modern day consumerism.
I’m not arguing that we stop eating and drinking together. Sharing a meal with friends and family is, at its core, a primal ritual. Sharing food has always been a way that humans connect, reconcile and commemorate relationships. Being thankful is not something that was invented by an historically inaccurate, and problematic holiday. The way we tell it today, thanksgiving did not happen at all. So, I am abandoning nothing, except a fable based on a moral that I do not believe.
New traditions are not necessarily made from scratch (though they can be). A new tradition may be a new intention, or a new way of looking at something familiar.
This year I am thankful for my family of fellow writers, new friends in a new part of the country that is hundreds of miles away from my home in North Carolina. My tradition includes not eating meat. My tradition might include a bowl with slips of paper, on which are written the subjects you’re “not supposed to talk about” at gatherings: politics, religion, money. I believe in tackling important ideas, topics and issues. I want to know what the people in my life feel about these things; I want to hear from someone else and learn something.
Re-thinking Thanksgiving is a renewal of history, not a desecration; one that honors indigenous people who were on these lands 12,000 years before Europeans arrived. Reviving our traditions to honor all communities only makes this holiday stronger, more accepting, and full of more gratitude. How much more ‘thanksgiving’ can you get than that? A celebration can be changed and that, for me, is a reinvigoration of the best parts of all holidays: the people, the food, the conversation and the time created to stop and notice what in our lives inspires gratitude.