Wednesday, November 23, 2022


This week we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States.  It's a Federal holiday established for Americans to take a moment with family and friends and consider what good fortunes they've had over the year.  Or maybe count blessings in a year that wasn't so great.

 As kids we get a "teach the legend" version of Thanksgiving and believe that we're celebrating a feast partaken of by the weird-o's who were so miffed they couldn't comfortably be uptight enough in 17th Century Europe, and so essentially moved to an equivalent of what would be a moon colony for us, just so they could burn women as witches in peace.  They happened to have their asses saved by some locals, and giving Thanks seemed like a keen idea.

That comes loaded with the egregious history of how Europeans would then colonize and wage 300 years of war on the people already living here.  So, understandably, if that was what we were celebrating, I get how one would pause to reflect and wonder how this led to finishing dinner quickly to watch The Dallas Cowboys and/ or seeing how much wine is in the remaining bottles and keeping a slow burn til it's all over.

But that is not what we're celebrating.  This isn't Christmas which has deep roots in Christian history, or Hannukah which refers to a specific moment in Jewish history.  I don't think most Americans really think of Thanksgiving as a specific day to sit down in honor of Pilgrims and Native Americans.  That would be particularly weird.  

From the earliest days of the U.S., Thanksgiving was a tradition in regions, but not universally celebrated.  While some Presidents observed the holiday, as early as Jefferson, the holiday was eschewed as religious and therefore not a National holiday.    

The battle of Gettysburg (July 1 - 3, 1863) saw the death of 50,000 soldiers.  Inconceivable to imagine those numbers coming back in the press and how one would feel, knowing people formerly countrymen had done this to one another.  Still reeling, on October 3, 1863 President Lincoln declared that the final Thursday in November would be taken as a national day of Thanksgiving.  He would deliver the Gettysburg Address on November 19 of that year, seven days before his appointed day of Thanks.

The idea of Thanksgiving as implemented by Lincoln likely was inspired by Sarah Josepha Hale - who is a whole thing and wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb" - who had been on a quest to see the New England tradition of Thanksgiving become a national holiday.  

It's unlikely Lincoln was thinking of Puritans breaking bread with Native Americans, but he did know that in the wake of the unspeakable horrors of war, it was time time for Americans to take a breath.  He surely knew this was nowhere near the end, and the war had a long road ahead.  

It's a holiday which is about remembrance, gratefulness, etc... and some weirdo's wo got kicked out of Europe don't have the copyright on that idea.  

My notion of Thanksgiving feels like it formed around 1981-1983, when I was 6-8. 

Like all Holidays run by Kare-Bear and The Admiral, it was a large affair.  Some years we had grandparents in, some we did not.  I cannot recall specifically if my cousin (who is 17 years my senior) was around for those Holidays - she was kind of omnipresent in my youth.  What I really remember is that it was often when we gathered with family friends, the B's, who had boys about the same age as Steanso and myself.  And once they arrived, it was shenanigans.  Parents cut cut us loose and we'd mostly not injure ourselves.  Growing up, they were great pals.  And the dads were often assigned to corral us in the days after Thanksgiving as the Moms did some Christmas shopping or whatever else they were going to do.  

Thanksgiving dinner at our own house was not so different from your house.  We may have served buffet style, but Karebear's banquet is second to none.  The Admiral's participation usually involved bartending during the hour leading up to the bird leaving the oven (no glass shall remain empty when The Admiral is on the case!) and a carving of the bird.  You could *try* to help Karebear in the kitchen, but you better do as asked and not improvise as this is a carefully orchestrated operation with three kinds of potatoes going in and out of ovens, greens beans, asparagus, and players to be named.  So if you're going to hang around, make sure you know your job.

There were the pageants at school and I recall a "dinner" at school in 2nd grade where we rolled out 30 feet of brown art paper probably a yard wide and we all sat on the floor and shared the finger foods brought to class.  

Beagles are terrible at chair distribution

During this same period, of course, we all watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (and the endless parade of Dolly Madison commercials), which made some nods to the pilgrims and whatnot, but was much more about appreciating one's pals and not just assuming you can invite yourself and all your friends to Charlie Brown's house.  

But I also recall we grew up on Norman Rockwell paintings, and Mr. Rockwell was the artist who captured a certain version of America that felt just out of reach, but which also felt alive and spoke volumes in nuance, in expression, in positioning, design and blocking.  It's unreal how Rockwell seems to have been reduced to kitsch at best and probably corny to a lot of Americans.  Maybe a product of how over produced his work was in the 1980's, mistakenly being taken the way many now take Thomas Kinkaid or other mass-market artists.  

The context of Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" series is mostly lost to time, but was intended to speak to Americans (and, eventually, the whole world) but was based upon FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech of 1941.  Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear.  One can imagine what this meant as the US entered World War II and Americans considered the end-goals of the Axis powers - and, indeed, what could be lost.

Freedom From Want is the most seen and most imitated of the Rockwell Thanksgiving paintings, maybe of all of his paintings here in 2022.  One can imagine what this table looked like to an America that had just come off of the Great Depression and was now rationing and planting Victory Gardens.  It's an aspiration, and certainly a product of its time and placement - originally a cover to The Saturday Evening Post.  

As a kid, I understood this was painted as WWII propaganda, and I basically understood that this was what Rockwell and FDR were asking America to defend.  Home, hearth, family and the opportunity for prosperity and joyful gathering and sharing of bounty - even if I couldn't have put it in those words.  But I recall knowing by middle-school (circa 1986-1988) that the image was intended to serve as an ideal to try to reclaim at the end of a very dark road.

Even in the years where I was maybe an anti-social, mopey kid, I buckled up put on my best face for the big day, and certainly the big dinner.  You're not going to hit the ideal, but you can understand what it means to gather, share, and - frankly - be present with your people.

The painting that said something to me about the Holiday on a more intimate level was the 1945 cover, Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes.  

I saw this about the same year I was given my first duties assisting with the meal (I specifically remember being asked to shuck corn).  I understood the painting as a mother welcoming her son home from war, the delight in her face at seeing her son - now a grown man - and immensity of her joy in having him home, the task at hand not forgotten but only a backdrop to the joy of reunion of homecoming.  A chance our soldiers would return safe.

It's true I never served, and my mother never had to worry about me the way mothers of those who serve do.  But I do know the importance of having her family around her that my mother feels.  And in the years when we didn't live in the same city, what it was like to come home.  Now, of course, it's the chance to share space and time in our busy lives, even though she and The Admiral live only a handful of miles away.  

Over the years, Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday.  There's so little pressure for perfection, just a meal to be shared and an opportunity to come together.  A parade on TV.  A way to mark the time and the year.  

I understand I am lucky.  I get along with my family.  We have few hang-ups and we've worked out our issues over the years.  There are no barriers between us that are things I'd find insurmountable, and I understand that this is a reality for many, many, many people.  Many of my friends have lost too may loved ones, and Thanksgiving is a painful reminder or a challenge.  

But for me, for now, I take it at face value.  Be grateful.  Be thankful.  Enjoy the day.  

Plus, Rockettes in the parade!

and who isn't thankful for that?

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