Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

I had a few free moments this morning to start on a post about Thanksgiving, and now I'm returning to it. My wife and daughter had a chance to go see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade this morning, a friend from my daughter's school had a couple of extra tickets for reserved seating, lucky ducks that they are. Then we all went out to eat at Charlie Brown's, my son and mother as well, and for a small group this sure beats working like hell to make a big meal and then staring at leftovers for a week. But that's neither here nor there.

In some interactions I've had about this holiday, some of the controversy that surround it has come up, and that prompts this post. At the core of the trouble is how we react to Thanksgiving as a symbol, and the meaning we attach to it, making it a problem that general semantics might mitigate to some degree. And the first thing to be said is that Thanksgiving is a symbol, not a "thing" in and of itself, it has different meanings for different people, and we probably need to separate out the historical realities from the myth and ritual it represents today. And we probably need to understand that the holiday is not the same "thing" as the mistreatment of native Americans by European settlers in the New World, and at the same time that criticism of the holiday is not the same "thing" as a personal attack on us as individuals.

We Americans set aside this day to take a break from work, which we most certainly need to do, and to express our gratitude for all that we have, which we also very much need to do, and to get together with family and friends, which is a good thing. As a ritual, it is a national, secular substitute for the kind of harvest holidays, which generally involve feasting, which can be found in cultures all over the world. I have heard tell that it actually was based on the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, our harvest holiday.

The American Thanksgiving myth itself is a good one, one of peaceful coexistence and community, and we also very much need messages about community to counter the heavy emphasis on individualism in our culture. Every society has its sacred symbols and rituals, and this is one of the main ones in American culture, and ought to be respected as such. And it may be that the story of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving is something of a myth, but no society can survive without a set of myths to bind it together.

Many myths have some connection to history, though, and this one certainly does. And somehow, we have never reconciled our history of warfare against native Americans with the present day. It's easy to say, that happened centuries ago, and has nothing to do with me--it would be especially easy for me to say so, my parents immigrated to the US in 1955, so we had nothing to do with it, so pass the cranberry sauce please.

But maybe we do need to do something more, like add a ceremony to this holiday, a period of silence and mourning to remember the price that was paid for our present-day comfort? And when you think about it, we have this holiday about the Pilgrims, we have Columbus Day which is also controversial, we even have Martin Luther King Day, but we don't have a national day of remembrance that recognizes the first peoples and nations of our land. If you really think about it, it is hard to explain why we don't have anything like that? Doesn't it seem conspicuous by its absence?

To move forward, we do need to achieve some kind of reconciliation with the past. And we have yet to achieve that.

Tomorrow night, I will be one of the lay leaders for a special Thanksgiving service at Congregation Adas Emuno, and everyone will be invited to say their own prayers of thanksgiving. And I intend to ask for that moment of silence to remember the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere, and all over the world. When Eurpoeans first discovered the Americas and encountered the native peoples, some thought it might be the ten lost tribes of Israel. And there certainly is much that our people have in common with indigenous peoples, so we of all people should acknowledge them, as we also acknowledge the American ritual of giving thanks for all that we have in our lives.

I'll write more on this in my next post.

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