When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of Nanny, my maternal grandmother, Florence Lillian Finkelstein. My childhood Thanksgivings were facilitated by my mom, my aunt and Nanny and were a testament to the matriarchal strength of our family. Like every family, we gathered with all the cousins to eat the ritual foods of the festival. After having been married and accumulating in-laws, I now know that these dishes can be very different for each family. My New York family was fairly conventional with sweet potato and marshmallow casserole, green bean and mushroom casserole with crunchy fried onions on top, canned cranberry sauce still in the shape of the can, boxed stuffing and mashed potatoes. My husband’s midwestern-based family prefers homemade “dressing,” jello salad (such a strange invention!) and a cheese and nuts version of ants-on-a-log. And of course, both families have turkey. There were a couple of years in my youth when I tried to introduce a tofu quinoa casserole to Thanksgiving dinner since I didn’t eat turkey (this is long before Tofurky was a thing), but no one ate it. Nowadays, I am happy to subsist solely on side dishes for Thanksgiving, which I think are the best part anyway. But truly the best part of Thanksgiving is getting together with loved ones to share a special meal and express our gratitude for the year past. Each year, I fondly recall my beautiful grandmother seated at the head of the table in her handmade fashions and clip-on earrings, laughing at the kids antics.
As a child, I was taught that the Thanksgiving meal that we celebrate in America each year was a covenant of peace between the Indigenous peoples and the settlers. This peace didn’t last more than a generation. Most indigenous people of our country would prefer we not celebrate this myth at all. And that makes total sense to me. It’d be like if Germans celebrated annually a historic peaceful dinner between Jews and Nazis prior to the Holocaust. Instead, Indigenous people consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning and a day of protest against racism and oppression.
It is well established at this point that Thanksgiving is propaganda. A hype job fed to us at a young age. A very wholesome myth of pilgrims and Indians. Pilgrims were described as refugees seeking religious freedom. We now know that Puritans practiced domination and colonization, deeming themselves superior to the “heathens,” as well as to the natural world. And though they were fleeing religious persecution, they hypocritically burned at the stake anyone they deemed not puritanical enough. I was also raised with the myth that this land was an unruly wilderness when the pilgrims arrived as opposed to the reality, which was a sustainably well-tended food forest. I was taught that “Indians” were superstitious and naïve. I now understand that not only did they have many technologies that were disregarded by Europeans, but that animism is no more superstitious or naïve than Christianity and for me, more rational than any other human philosophy I’ve come across. Call me a heathen.
So how do I reconcile these two very different sides of Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is a family tradition, one of the few cultural events in a country deeply lacking in its own culture. Children get a whole week off from school to spend time with extended relatives. It brings people across the states together in joy and gratitude. It brings me into communion with my grandmother’s memory. Juxtaposed with the fact that for Indigenous people, Thanksgiving represents the failures of American history and the mass genocide of their people.
In my youth, I took a break from celebrating Christmas so I could work extra shifts at my job, as well as to protest the gross consumerism of the holiday. I am not Christian and the holiday is supposed to be about the birth of Jesus. Meanwhile, as a pagan, it was obvious to me that the holiday was really meant to co-opt the traditions of Yule and Winter Solstice, as we actually have no idea when Jesus was born and the evidence we do have is that he was born in springtime. But when I started a family of my own, Christmas took on a new meaning. It is a fun tradition now that we shape in our own special way by going into the woods to get our tree, doing a puzzle together each year and watching Elf for the umpteenth time. And while I call it a Yule celebration, we still celebrate on Christmas day like everyone else, with gifts from Santa.
I would love it if we could change the name of Thanksgiving and wipe the slate clean, rid ourselves of the terrible lies behind it. I would love for it to be nothing more than a harvest festival when the fields have been cleared and everything has been canned and stocked in the root cellar and we can take time to look at our food cache to see if we’re going to survive winter or not. A time to be grateful for what we have. Unfortunately, changing the name of Thanksgiving is just a band-aid for the harm it causes.
I don’t know how to reconcile my desire to spend time with friends and family with my integrity that tells me to boycott the whole mess. In the same way, I am vegetarian and (even if I wasn’t) I am disgusted by the massive amount of turkey that is slaughtered for this one day and the ecological damage it causes. The majority of the 46 million turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving each year are raised in horrific conditions under states of abuse before being mechanically slaughtered. So, I don’t eat turkey, but I still celebrate the holiday.
I don’t have a solution. My compromise, which is not enough if I’m honest with myself, has been to reframe Thanksgiving as a day of gratitude that has nothing to do with American history or turkeys. I’m grateful for the more-than-human world that continues to nurture me and provide solace through good and bad. And as I sit down for my harvest dinner with people I love, I remember that all of this would be impossible without the help of the nature beings and all the people and animals that gave their life to contribute to our meal.
There is a gratitude game that I like to play sometimes with my family at dinnertime and I offer it up to you for this holiday season. It is especially great to play with kids to get them involved in thinking about the interconnectivity of all beings on the planet.
Starting with the soil, rain, sun and seeds, name and give thanks to every being that contributed to every piece of food on the table. (If it’s easier, pick one dish.) Start with the obvious, but don’t forget to name the less obvious, like the mushrooms that compost the soil, the truck drivers that ship to the grocery store, the fork manufacturers that create our utensils to eat the food with and microbes that help us digest the food. Through this exercise, we can begin to unravel the mass production, environmental impact and the care that went into one meal. Consider how far we have come from that first autumn harvest meal back in 1621 with the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth when everything was gathered from the land by the same people who ate the meal.
As always, whatever you choose to celebrate or not celebrate, I wish you the best. I am grateful for you.