This year has cemented in my mind the idea that Thanksgiving is the greatest of all the cold-month holidays. Bereft of the burden of extended family antagonism, turkey day becomes just that—a day dedicated wholly to the consumption of poultry, potatoes and pie. Perhaps the dearth of cousins and uncles allowed us room to really get the food down right because the fare this year was simply delicious. The potatoes were whipped to perfection, the cranberry sauce was made in a pan rather than a can and the turkey was, for the first time in my living memory, not dry enough to absorb a lake. The pilgrim-obsessed romanticism that birthed this silly holiday was totally forgotten amidst the solitude of a small family gathering with great food, and I have to admit that I’m already looking forward to next year’s feast.
Perhaps you Christians out there will attest to the wonders of the Christmas ham, but my family isn’t into that sort of thing. Regardless, Christmas demands that you not only shell out for good food, but good presents as well. Turkey day doesn’t ask you to make desperate 9 p.m. Walmart runs for plastic junk destined for landfills and couch creases. It does occasionally ask you to make desperate 8 a.m. Market Basket trips, but at least you delegate these runs communally. The act of buying a present is so secret, so personally demanding. Ham and guilt lead to a sore stomach! You don’t need to give your family a receipt in case they don’t like the turkey. Thanksgiving softly tells you to save that anxiety for Friday.
What does that pink, plastic-like hunk of Christmas ham even go with anyway? The Thanksgiving palette is beautiful to the mouth as well as to the eye, and there is a reason you savor the leftovers for days and days. The crimson cranberry sauce and the orange-brown hues of the squash remind you of the new England foliage that, by late November, has only recently faded. The stuffing, when made with care and creativity, looks like a festive mass of earth tones and vegetable greens and the contrasting mashed potatoes and the pale flesh of the turkey remind the eater of oncoming winter. Do these feelings resonate with folks living in Florida and Arizona? If they don’t, then the flavors certainly do.
Unlike the salty ham, turkey is a mostly neutral meat. It begs to be mixed with the stuffing and the squash and as much gravy as you can heap onto the pile. The Thanksgiving plate is a hot mess of bright colors just waiting to be mashed together. It’s autumn made consumable, a wonderful send-off to the pre-winter season.
Thanksgiving is one of the most hedonistic holidays and that suits us denizens of 2020 very well. Participants are required to pack as much savory and sweet food into their bodies as possible before passing out. Then, moving from the kitchen table to the couches, participants are allowed to sleep or lounge to their heart’s content. After a good deal of this torpor, the family may once again convene at the table for another round of face stuffing, but this time with cake, pies and ice cream. Doesn’t that sound like a dream? Thanksgiving is not just a holiday marked by feasting. Thanksgiving has elevated the feast to an event of national significance. Food is the be-all and end-all on this lazy day. Of course, if you and your family suck at cooking, this day of rest must be pretty depressing.
I suppose I can’t praise Thanksgiving without addressing the elephant in the room. In Massachusetts elementary schools, the pilgrim heritage of the holiday is really hammered in ad nauseam. It can be difficult to think about Thanksgiving without imagining a quaint little harvest feast with buckle-clad Puritans and hunched Native Americans crowding about a wooden table. A lot of mental capital is dedicated to forgetting the fact that these native peoples were later butchered, sickened by foreign disease and forced from their homes. Young Brandeisians likely think about the holiday with an ire that is admittedly deserved. I ask that these detractors, however, consider the great entropic power of time. As Thanksgiving, like all of the mainstream holidays, continues to decline into ever more depraved levels of commodification, it becomes an object detached from itself. It can be remolded.
Never forget the deadly ego of the pilgrim. Never forget the native lives destroyed to build this nation. It is good that this holiday instills a healthy dose of historical reflection and wrath, but ignoring the delicious feast in front of you isn’t going to make your racist uncle care about any of that more than he already does. And hey, if you need a holiday to really direct your angst toward, look no further than the king of them all. Christmas happens to be all about Jesus Christ, the symbolic figure responsible for more accumulated death in the modern era than anybody else. Jesus was the inspiring force behind those crazy Puritans sailing out to Massachusetts in the first place. Thanksgiving is sort of his problem.
Is Thanksgiving a morally fraught nightmare of industrial agriculture and dirty history? Well, of course. It is also the only holiday Americans have that really forces us to appreciate good food and the communal activity of preparing it. It is a day of peaceful labor with a superb reward. We want our holidays to remind us of the importance of working together toward common goals and to be thankful for all of the wonderful people and things that enrich our lives. As Christmas becomes more and more of a cash cow wracked by guilt and wastefulness, Thanksgiving might be our final grounding hope.