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Thanksgiving 2020

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When we picture the classic, stereotypical Thanksgiving scene, what are we picturing? The glow of candles, the golden turkey, the large table laid out with the feast, the family gathered in their Sunday best on a Thursday, perhaps with a “kids’ table” in the background—it has always been more of a Norman Rockwell-esque idea than a reality for any particular family. The real pictures of what is going on in tens of millions of homes around the country on Thanksgiving Day would show tens of millions of distinct, unique variations on that theme. They would have a certain, central aspiration in common, as well as a few details, perhaps, like pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce. If there be such a thing as the best of American culture, Thanksgiving gives it a concrete shape.

Thanksgiving is aspirational. Some years the turkey gets ruined, or the flight gets cancelled, or everyone has the flu. And a few people might serve ravioli or roast beef instead. Many people don’t have a large family to gather around the proverbial board, or even a formal dining room table to gather around, much less any gaggle of young cousins to fill out a kids’ table. Many places lack a horn of plenty tastefully overflowing as the centerpiece. In fact, in my personal experience, everyplace lacks such a cornucopia; such things exist only in catalogs and postcards as some sort of platonic ideal of the holiday. Every actual Thanksgiving meal falls short of the aspiration in some way or another, but that is what makes every unique attempt important. Not everybody succeeds in manifesting every aspect of the vision, but everybody sees it as worth trying again and again. The millions of yearly attempts give us a pretty clear picture of a cultural aspiration even as the details differ from place to place.

What are the ingredients of the aspiration itself? What are all we millions of households shooting for each year? What are the particular flavors of the ideal, archetypal Thanksgiving? Set aside your personal reality for moment—what goes into the postcard version of Thanksgiving? What is Thanksgiving supposed to be like? How is Thanksgiving in the abstract a picture of American aspirations?

First, there is more than a dash of religion to the thing. Gratitude transcends any particular church, religion, or conception of God, but every religion must somehow give outlet to gratitude, which is something that mankind can’t help but sense we owe to something higher. Americans are a particularly religious people, as this quintessentially American holiday shows. We have no official, national church or religion, but culturally we are religious in general, and Thanksgiving gives shape to that fact. Families that don’t “say grace” at any other meal of the year instinctively sense that some such ceremonial act befits Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving has an object, even if that object is different in every house. The gratitude goes somewhere.

Another prime ingredient of the holiday, more important even than turkey, is the idea of family. The giant harvest table in the postcards stands ready to be surrounded by people who are related to each other. They fulfill archetypal roles like grandma and grandpa, crazy uncle and widowed great aunt, baby in a high chair and even dog begging for scraps. This family focus is true of nearly every traditional culture of any ethnicity, and America at Thanksgiving simply combines them into one amalgamated celebration of kinship. You have a place at the table where you belong, and it is among your relatives. Many people don’t have much kin, of course, or live too far from them to make get-togethers feasible, but everyone makes do as best they can. The realities vary, but the vision of Thanksgiving is a vision of family. 

The meal aspires to show forth the very best. Not paper plates, but the best tableware, the stuff reserved for company, the heirloom china that makes an appearance only a few times a year. Crystal wine glasses, even if it is fake crystal holding fake wine. Candles. The cynical teenagers in the crowd will complain that dressing up is hypocritical. They’ll say they’d rather be “real” and comfortable than phony and presentable. But that is the whole point of aspirational things. We can’t always look our best, but at least there is such a thing as looking our best. We are capable of it. The house can’t always be decked out like a showcase home. But doing it one time a year shows that it can be done. Dirt may be normal for us, but we are capable of cleanliness. The clutter may be almost insurmountable. But it is not totally insurmountable, because once a year we conquer it. We can’t always eat like kings, but we demand to be people who can say we know what it is like to eat like kings. Once a year may be enough, but we ought not be completely ignorant of feasting. The house itself has its own Sunday best to surround the holiday feasts. For this reason, it is important that the feast take place in the same house that gets lived in normally all year. It is the same house transformed by the holiday. The kids in a studio portrait might look better than they normally look, but they ought to be the same kids, not photogenic stunt doubles. Same with the house on Thanksgiving. It is the dumpy, messy, regular house presented at its best. That’s how aspirational things work. 
Aspirational Thanksgiving nearly always features a strong element of tradition. Not just delicious food, but old family recipes are best. Not just fancy tableware, but heirloom tableware if possible. The platonic ideal of Thanksgiving is a multi-generational event. The picture of this Thanksgiving feast carries with it the blurry memory of Thanksgiving feasts from long ago, before the children were born or some of the oldsters died. Everything that happens glows with the ceremonial gravitas of something that has always been done. Carving the turkey, offering a particular toast, lighting the candles in a centerpiece, whatever it is, we have to be able to compare this year to years past. Changes and innovations grow gradually. One new thing this year becomes the way it has always been at Thanksgiving as the children grow older year by year.

Traditional roles are also allowed to make a temporary comeback at Thanksgiving. Moms who rarely cook may become queen of the kitchen without offending their liberated sensibilities. Dads who need instructions to handle a carving knife nevertheless have permission to play the role of pater familias in the proverbial Rockwell portrait of Thanksgiving. It is okay for men to feel manly and okay for women to feel womanly on Thanksgiving. The throwback, old school, traditional feel of the event confers such permissions. The house so bedecked speaks well of the homemaker, and the feast itself heaps praise on the breadwinner. The real thing may not match the model, but Thanksgiving keeps alive the memory and glory of those distinct roles in a world that has blurred them almost entirely.   

Thanksgiving also echoes with farm life, rural scenery, and connection to the land. At root, after all, it is a harvest festival. Few people live on farms today, but most people have ancestors somewhere in the family tree who lived on farms. Thanksgiving somehow hearkens back to that kind of life with connection to the seasons of sowing and reaping. Postcard holiday meals happen disproportionately in farmhouses and old fashioned small towns in which even non-farmers have strong cultural connections to an agrarian, outdoorsy way of life, usually New Englandy, but sometimes Midwestern or Southern. No matter how many generations of suburban life have intervened, something about Thanksgiving just feels inseparable from the land and hunting wild game in a place with agrarian roots.

Thanksgiving as a national holiday is especially aspirational about America, American history, and American stories. Catholics, Lutherans, even proud atheists and hedonists can have a whiff of Puritan in them at Thanksgiving. The story of the first pilgrims and the natives are part of America’s ideals no matter how or why one’s ancestors came to America. The holiday is about the best of who we are and where we came from. There is a worst, to be sure. Plenty of it. But this day celebrates the best.

Modern detractors miss this crucial point. They think the gauzy, feel-good story is merely propaganda, an attempt to gloss over or hide the bloody realities of American history. But that is the same as the cynical teenager’s complaint that the nice clothes and table-setting are phony because the reality is usually much different. The pilgrims sitting down with the natives and sharing a feast in gratitude to Providence inspires the ongoing story of America. There is time to acknowledge the hideous things; let there also be a time to focus on the good, and let that time be formative. That’s what Thanksgiving gives us. Religious people, people from big, loving families of any ethnicity, traditional people, farmers and rural people, and people who love America for what it is in their hearts despite the flaws—these all sense that somehow Thanksgiving puts it all together to form a mental picture of a cohesive cultural aspiration that is truly glorious and worthy of celebration.

Culturally unifying things are tough to come by in a country like the United States. We’re a nation of immigrants, of various indigenous people and a crush of people from around the globe. Even the flag and the national anthem have become divisive. But Thanksgiving remains as something distinctly American that we have in common. So it matters that people celebrate it at least in some ways according to the pattern. It isn’t just great to have turkey and stuffing. It is great to have turkey and stuffing on a day when practically everyone else is also having turkey and stuffing. Finally, something we have in common. Even people who do variations on the theme by serving tofu burgers or lamb chops recognize the traditional turkey meal with all the trappings as the theme they’re doing a variation on.  At least they used to.

For several years now, Thanksgiving dinner has been a source of controversy. An annual barrage of articles offers advice about surviving the ordeal of Thanksgiving dinner. Until last year I considered such articles to be complaints about the disconnect between the ideal and real. The turkey wasn’t hunted, it was factory-farmed. The crazy uncle wasn’t a beloved old man but a somewhat creepy and obnoxious boor. The family togetherness was faked by people who spoke ill of each other the rest of the year. More alcohol was consumed than the church ladies were ever going to know about. I considered these articles the collective voice of the teenagers objecting to church clothes. It would be one thing if it were enjoyable or if it represented reality, but it isn’t enjoyable and we should own up to the reality rather than pretending.

The main objection in these articles has tended to revolve around the political—how could one deal with relatives who actually supported Trump? It was as though differing views on Trump were not a political difference but a religious difference. These writers being asked to attend Thanksgiving with their yokel MAGA relatives back home seem to feel like observant Jews being expected to celebrate Christmas. They treat it as a moral, even spiritual imposition. But last year I concluded that the annual spate of articles objecting to Thanksgiving dinner were not really just about Trump and politics. They are really objections to the ideal, not the reality, of a traditional Thanksgiving. It is the mental picture these anti-Thanksgiving writers perceive and reject, not the particulars of any actual Thanksgiving dinner, theirs or anyone else’s. Trump just gave them a handy thing to put their finger on and give a name to their formless larger objections. I think they would probably have issues with the holiday regardless of who might be president. The ingredients of the national holiday are mostly bourgeoisie ingredients. They glorify and idealize bourgeoisie values. The annual opinion writers’ problem is not the dinner they’re actually going home to. The problem is the Rockwell-esque, archetypal picture the dinner aspires to be.   
I used to think there was just a perennial complaint about Thanksgiving. Now I think there is really a counter-ideal to it. Thanksgiving has competition. I saw it embodied perfectly last year in a picture. Well, a tweet actually, that contained a picture and a caption. The photo struck me immediately and profoundly with the impression that I as looking at an archetype. The people and setting seemed to represent something larger and abstract, a whole culture captured in a snapshot. They embodied the fulfillment of a competing set of ideals and aspirations with a kind of holiday of their own, every bit as concrete as a family gathered around a golden turkey embodies Thanksgiving. Here was what those who don’t aspire to the mental picture of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner actually do aspire to. The sort of people who deal in “how to survive Thanksgiving at home” articles and conversations might look at this picture and think, “There! That’s it! That’s picture I’m shooting for. That’s the cultural life I want. That is the fullness of what my own attempts amount to a hopeful shadow of or variation on.” It could function as the Normal Rockwell painting of a holiday for people who don’t like Thanksgiving and probably can’t stand Norman Rockwell paintings. It takes all the ingredients of dissatisfaction with traditional Thanksgiving and puts them together into a cohesive, cultural expression of a different culture.

The now famous picture shows five youngish professionals, three women and two men, happily enjoying drinks and appetizers in a nice restaurant decorated for the holidays. The caption reads, “Merry Impeachmas from the WaPo team!” I want to stress that I know nothing about the people in the photo. They might all be traditional conservative Christians with lots of children at home for all I know. I’m not really even interested in them as individuals, I’m interested in how the picture itself struck me as something many people who don’t like Thanksgiving could see as aspirational, something that combines various social ingredients into a cohesive cultural expression. The Seinfeld sitcom gave us the joke holiday Festivus as an alternative to Christmas and Hannukah, with the crazy Kramer character embracing it as “A Festivus for the rest of us.” I think this Impeachmas photo could strike certain people the same way. We don’t want Thanksgiving. We want this instead. Considering the picture as an archetypal ideal, what are the key ingredients of the scene and how do they compare to Thanksgiving? 

The religious element of this scene, such as it is, is one of playful irreverence. “Merry Impeachmas” as a joke greeting among progressives has been around for several years, ever since some congressman said in Trump’s first year in office that he would be impeached before Christmas. The WaPo team would not likely tweet out Merry Christmas even on Christmas, and one does not get the impression these people likely said grace before the picture was taken. But the faux holiday greeting unconsciously captures the spirit of this replacement celebration. In this picture, political significance has replaced religious significance, and the news of the day has replaced anything timeless. It would have to be WaPo or the NYT for full effect, the flagship newspapers of the only cities that could make plausible claim to be where the most important people live. The picture is of a fun holiday gathering cool people who are successful at important, insider-type work, and the greeting befits those who consider politics to be as close to holy as life in this world gets. 

The kinship element of Thanksgiving has been completely replaced in this picture by the team of colleagues relaxing after a day of important, newsworthy work. There is no kids’ table in this picture, nor are there any sleepy old people. Certainly there are no gender roles. The sexes are interchangeable. The matriarch has been eradicated altogether. This is a breadwinners-only club. Importantly, the scene is set in a restaurant, not a home. In this scene the people don’t decorate, cook, or clean up. They’re going to pay to have those things done for them. Homemaking, like child-rearing, simply isn’t part of the aspirational vision. There is nothing domestic about the scene, not even a dog begging for scraps. The culture this holiday expresses has little if anything to do with hearth and home.   

As absent as the hearth is the family tree. The multiple generations of Thanksgiving have been compressed by lopping off the ends. No ancestors or descendants here. The people in this scene are all roughly the same age, or at least of the same generation. They are not newbies, but they’re young enough to be ascending the career ladder, more at home among college students than among retirees. The picture expresses no filial piety toward some old man, or mandatory patience for some pouty preteen. It depicts no excited little girls wanting to hold the baby. There are no heirlooms on the table or old family recipes on the menu.

Casual, trendy and upscale in this picture replace the formal, traditional and “down home” flavor of Thanksgiving. The picture wouldn’t work if the restaurant were a common diner like Denny’s where anybody might hang out. Not a stuffy, formal place with a maître d in a tuxedo, either. It has to be someplace where cool people who are also important and have money to spend might go to celebrate.

The scene is of an interior. Nothing in it betrays anything geographical. The caption, of course, sort of gives it away that it must be near Washington D.C., but nothing in the picture itself gives it away. It could have been taken in Oshkosh, Wisconsin or Macon, Georgia for all the viewer knows. But no… no it couldn’t have. Literally, maybe it could have, but not according to the ideal. The archetype requires not only be a trendy restaurant but a trendy city surrounding it. Where Thanksgiving has an unmistakably rural flavor, the WaPo picture is distinctly urban. You can tell just by looking at it. If these people aren’t urban dwellers, they certainly wish they were. And not just any city, but a city (usually New York, but also D.C., San Francisco, or Seattle) where kids who dream of “getting out” dream of going. So, not Indianapolis or Cincinnati. Someplace hip.
Where Thanksgiving has a generally conservative flavor, Impeachmas is unapologetically progressive. The Washington Post tried to apologize for the appearance of partisan bias in the tweet by saying the caption expressed no opinion either way on the impeachment itself, it was just that impeachment was what was on the mind of these reporters unwinding after a long day of covering it during the holiday season. But nobody of any political persuasion believed that explanation. The archetype wouldn’t work if had been the impeachment of Bill Clinton they’d been working on. Progressivism might not be officially mandatory, but Impeachmas is as politically progressive as Thanksgiving is autumnal.   

Obviously, there can be a time and a place for everything. One can celebrate with colleagues in one way and with relatives in another. There is no reason someone couldn’t love a traditional Thanksgiving and yet also love the idea expressed in the WaPo picture, too. They are in many ways opposites, sure. Thanksgiving is religious, familial, traditional, conservative and rural where the other is irreligious, political, collegial, trendy, and urban. Even if they are different as night and day, nobody has to hate the one to love the other. Both can be good in their own ways. But they have come to be rivals because they vie to represent the soul of America. How is America culturally expressed? Where Thanksgiving has the Pilgrims, Impeachmas has the 1619 Project. Both are aspirational, but they aspire to mutually-exclusive ideals with contrary tellings of the American story. The two paradigmatic holidays can coexist in America, but they can’t both be the quintessentially American thing. A culture combines various ingredients into one cohesive expression, and we increasingly have two separate cultures in America with less and less in common.

More and more people are losing touch with traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Families are smaller. There aren’t many homemakers left. Few young women aspire to me matriarchs. Fewer dads are willing to be serious for a moment and lead the family in saying grace or offer a genuine toast. People have been career-minded and mobile for a few generations now; fewer people have an ancestral hometown. Life is disconnected from the land and from rural pursuits. Feel-good stories about the history of America have largely been banished. The number of people who don’t bother with a traditional Thanksgiving at all, or who don’t make much of it, or only endure it is probably growing. And the number of people who could look at the photo in the WaPo tweet and see an archetype of what should replace Thanksgiving is probably growing. They all can’t be up-and-coming journalists covering presidential politics, but they can all see that picture as the ideal that their own efforts are a variation on. It embodies their cultural aspirations just as surely as someone cooking a turkey can see the perfect, archetypal Thanksgiving dinner in their mind.
To me, the test of the holiday is the place it gives to prayer. A cultural expression in which prayer is inappropriate or atypical expresses a hollow culture. The center of meaning is gone. Neither politics, nor youth, nor education, nor work, nor trendiness, nor fun can bear up under the weight of receiving reverence and prayer. Until the people who find Thanksgiving objectionable have a replacement that calls them to pause in reverent prayer, they haven’t found a lasting replacement. When they do, I think they will have found their way like pilgrims back to Thanksgiving.

J. Thomas Shelley:
Excellent, Pastor Speckard...more glittering gems than a tiara.

--- Quote from: peter_speckhard on November 25, 2020, 01:20:42 AM ---As absent as the hearth is the family tree. The multiple generations of Thanksgiving have been compressed by lopping off the ends. No ancestors or descendants here. The people in this scene are all roughly the same age, or at least of the same generation. They are not newbies, but they’re young enough to be ascending the career ladder, more at home among college students than among retirees. The picture expresses no filial piety toward some old man, or mandatory patience for some pouty preteen. It depicts no excited little girls wanting to hold the baby. There are no heirlooms on the table or old family recipes on the menu.

--- End quote ---

There is much for which I am thankful in these days; chief among which is that in a few minutes I will once again join those of the (mostly) Hellenic tree to which I have been grafted in recalling one of our spiritual ancestors, Katherine the Great Martyr of Alexandria.

The Holy Table will be set with the finest vessels, heirlooms of this community as we follow the rubrical recipe that has endured for more than fifteen centuries.

--- Quote ---Praise Him with the sound of trumpet; praise Him with the harp and lyre.

Katherine, the all-lauded Martyr,
as we keep the all-sacred feast
of your contest and martyrdom,
with voices incessant we glorify the Master,
who bestowed upon you patient endurance to the end,
and who exalted you as victorious,
and gave you words of wisdom to defeat the impious orators.
He is Jesus, our Lord and God
and the Savior who loves mankind.

--Stichera from the Praises, Fourth Tone

--- End quote ---

Jeremy Loesch:
Peter, I recall reading somewhere on this forum at some point in the past that you were not interested in comments that say, "Nice job!" or "Well done!"...but I appreciated reading both of those posts.  And I like reading what you have to write, whether it was the daily messages to your congregation at the onset of the coronavirus time or in FL or here.  So...nice job.

And when an issue of FL arrives in the mail, I read the lead article and try to guess if it was written by you or Richard.  I usually get it right.  You and Richard both write very well.


I should have put in the article that one major reason competing holidays can't really coexist as expressions of the culture (e.g. Christmas and Kwaanza or Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples Day) is that a major social function of celebrations is to give young people a cultural history and map through life.

The people who write about enduring their conservative relatives on Thanksgiving never seem to remember that they are likewise being endured. By grace the outspoken progressive activist knows she will always have a place at the Thanksgiving table, and because she will always have it she can forget that it is by the grace of the people who have to endure her boring preachiness. 

Everybody fits into the Thanksgiving picture somehow. Only educated professionals really have a home in the Impeachmas picture, and for all practical purposes mostly just single or childless people in the 25-50 age demographic. 


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