The day known as Thanksgiving fills this week in the USofA, between the big day on Thursday and our need to make it home ahead of that. It’s not a particularly American holiday, but it is a special celebration of our nation for many reasons.
A day of “Thanks giving” is traditionally around the harvest, as is the Canadian Thanksgiving in October. Ours is so late because George Washington was the one who proclaimed it in honor of the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. The day, and its strange assignment late in the year, are inherently tied to the creation of the United States as we know it.
Such a day celebrating deliverance from some kind of evil is much bigger than the Roundheads who landed in Plymouth. The basic idea of this kind of celebration is a part of every cultural and religious group known to humans. The date may seem strange, but that is the one part that is American. The rest you can fill in according to your own outlook on the hereafter.
That’s what is so special about this holiday, and why it continues to be important through time. New generations of immigrants have come here, and each has found a way to have a Thanksgiving that works. More than a few people, such as the Hmong who have made such a great mark on Saint Paul, can use the opportunity to celebrate deliverance of a new kind. Thanksgiving is, to many of them, a day to celebrate being in a land where they can known peace and justice just before they celebrate their own New Year the following day.
I have known Cubans who make a big show out of Thanksgiving as well, and many go to church to directly give thanks for being delivered from Communism. Where I grew up in the area around Miami one family up the street had a traditional Cuban pig roast for Thanksgiving, putting a slightly Caribbean twist on traditions we know up north. But the idea was clearly the same, and if you have an extended family to feed a pig is a lot easier than a few turkeys when it comes time to cook.
What impressed me most were my Jewish friends, who made it clear that their families didn’t see this as remotely Christian at all. To them, it was a time to celebrate not just the escape from so many horrors, but being delivered to a land where they were able to thrive as never before. I learned that many Jews have come to think that perhaps, just maybe, America is the real Promised Land after all. That’s something for everyone to remember on Thanksgiving Day.
The idea is so simple, and that’s what makes it flexible. We get together as a family, enjoy the bounty of a rich land, and remember what is great about life. We can do this in so many different ways, and yet at the heart of it all what we do is American. Every family has a story that speaks to the American Dream in its own way. These stories are to be shared around a table piled high with food, underneath laughter and whispers and a few tears for those no longer with us. These aren’t stories that you wear on your sleeve or broadcast on some kind of national media.
This is what makes America. It’s not all the same, and it doesn’t conform to one standard. But it all works somehow, and it works in ways that, with a good half step back, seem rather obvious.