Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Another Hard-Wired in American Holiday to Enjoy

by Gary Berg-Cross

Thanksgiving is often called the most American of holidays. I've heard its nature captured in a contemporary tween as, "Thanksgiving — the day we express gratitude for family, food and football. (But mostly football.)"

There is always something to be Thankful for (well not the Washington football team), although a look at the paper suggests it isn’t all cranberries and stuffing.   I'm not trapped in Buffalo for example - is that too close to thinking how ungrateful I am to the forces bringing us climate change? And yes, gas prices are down if climate disruption is up - seems like that classic case of choosing to focus on something near-term, in hand, already here versus what might be behind door 2 in the far distance. Only, choosing the chocolate-covered sweet may get me the less desirable thing I fear in the future. 
And yes, I can add to my list that ebola is on the decline, no thanks to NJ governor "sweet pie".

And speaking of stuffing ourselves, sure, many of us will share an abundance of food (pass the pie please), conversation and music (Max's drawing above too). But there are paradoxes galore as a very religious country tries to celebrate an event starting with Pilgrim’s thanking their particular God. We are now in the context of a more material, secular holiday celebrating family reunion as a precursor to shop-till-you-drop Friday..  Excess represents the paradoxical tension in which we hold the two halves of our national life.

As the Boston Globe’s review of James Baker’s “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Revisiting New England)” noted there has been a culturally blown path to today’s holiday:

“Baker traces how the [Thanksgiving] celebration has changed over the years. In the 18th century, Thanksgiving was viewed as a day for family reunions, and the Pilgrims were remembered as the symbolic founders of New England. But the connection between the two had been lost by the time George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789. . . Baker notes that the struggle over the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday continues, with historical accuracy often the victim of political advantage. But, he argues, ‘the holiday’s cultural vigor is actually demonstrated by the conflicts and debates that surround it.’ For, he observes, ‘debate indicates relevance, and the dispute over the appropriate role of Thanksgiving in American life demonstrates that the holiday is very much alive and still evolving.’”—

As I noted last year, I like thanking the natural world and friends for some of the joys of the year. For the feel of what contemporary Thanksgiving has evolved into, I like
author Richard Ford’s take on it.  We hear a critical and astute voice in his 3rd novel of the Frank Bascombe Trilogy - "The Lay of the Land" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).  Frank’s observations on American culture that began with The Sportswriter (1986) and continued with Independence Day (1995). Each story is centered around a holiday.  When Frank is a young man it is Easter and he is in the season of hope amidst a cruel spring. Independence Day is of course about the 4th and Frank is no fire cracker fan, adrift and no longer married.  It’s more about traffic congestion than celebration.  In the 3rd book middle age Frank is a declining realtor facing the arrival of a cold Thanksgiving as the seasons of his life have advanced. 

As in each of the novel’s Frank's internal life is full of honest observations on things around him – society, family and identity and what it means to be a New Jersey American at a particular holiday time. These times include formal and informal holiday traditions that set wheels in motion that collide in paradoxical grim/humorous family gatherings.

Cultural and neighbor collisions wash up like dead starfish on the NJ shore too. 
As the arc of Thanksgiving day approaches Frank’s narrative concern is one of the impending pressure of events and expectations.  Readers may enjoy his take on the holiday.  He calls it:

 "cloying Thanksgiving… the recapitulative, Puritan and thus most treacherous of holidays.”

Frank may be blamed for feeling down and ill with little expectation of cheer form his family, but the author had more general coping things in mind about the nature of Thanksgiving as Frank further observers how things may work out and how we got here:

" My thought is that by my plan's being unambitious, the holiday won't deteriorate into apprehension, dismay and rage, rocketing people out the door and back to the Turnpike long before sundown. Thanksgiving ought to be the versatile, easy-to-like holiday suitable to the secular and religious...It often doesn't work out that way.... , "As everyone knows, the Thanksgiving 'concept' was originally strong-armed onto poor war-torn President Lincoln by an early prototype forceful-woman editor of a nineteenth century equivalent of "The Ladies Home Journal," with a view to upping subscriptions. And while you can argue that the holiday commemorates ancient rites of fecundity and the Great-Mother-Who-Is-in-the-Earth, it's in fact always honored storewide clearances and stacking 'em deep 'n selling 'em cheap - unless you're a Wampanoag Indian in which case it celebrates deceit, genocide, and man's indifference to who owns what............

And yet, Thanksgiving won't be ignored.  Americans are hard-wired for something to be thankful for.  Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude.  Even if Aunt Bella's flat-lined and in custodial care down in Rucksville, Alabama, we still "need" her to have some white meat and gravy, and be thankful, thankful, thankful.”

Ford’s fictional, but very human, agent Frank organizes his events modestly “for nonconfrontational familial good cheer “ in line with his reality but also risks little by trying to creatively navigate the downsides of the paradoxes:

 “unspectacular physical state -- and to accommodate as much as possible everyone's personal agendas, biological clocks, comfort zones and need for wiggle room, while offering a pleasantly neutral setting . ". . . it is churlish not to let the spirit swell - if it can - since little enough's at stake.....Contrive, invent, engage - take the chance to be cheerful. Though in the process, one needs to skirt the spiritual dark alleys and emotional cul-de-sacs, subdue all temper flarings and sob sessions with loved ones . . . Take B vitamins and multiple walks on the beach. Make no decisions more serious than lunch. Get as much sun as possible. In other words, treat Thanksgiving like jet lag."

Good advice on how to make a complex ritual filled with paradox work.

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