Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and I can't decide if I should be looking forward to the occasion or staking out a closet in which to hide. Like genius and insanity, the line between anticipation and trepidation can be narrow.
How can one have such strong feelings about such a benign holiday? The answer is simple: Expectations. We all have expectations of this increasingly vaunted holiday (although fewer and fewer of us are able to fulfill them).
In that respect, Thanksgiving is fast becoming like Christmas, already one of the highest days of psychological crisis on the American calendar. We long to live up to the Norman Rockwell-like images of family togetherness that have come to define these holidays, though we can barely recapture the more mundane appeal of our own childhood gatherings.
My personal Thanksgiving standards are clearly out of line with any reasonable picture of reality in today's world. The holiday of my past was a gathering of 30 to 45 aunts, uncles, cousins, and, occasionally, more distant relatives, coming together in small-town California to partake of two giant, full-breasted turkeys, buckets of mashed potatoes, gallons of gravy, sweet potato casseroles, and at least a half-dozen venison, mincemeat, and pumpkin pies. A pheasant hunt in the morning(!), sitting around the fireplace talking of old times until dinnertime, kids running wild in the 2,500-acre city park across the street from my grandparents' house - that was the Pillsbury tradition.
Of course, no one lives this way anymore. Corporate moves, scattered relatives, fewer children, cantankerous in-laws - all have taken a toll on our traditions over the years. Still, the holiday prevails, embraced by Mayflower descendants and new immigrants alike with equal fervor, though the recipes (and, perhaps, the ratio of relatives to non-family members at the dinner table) may have been tinkered with.
Thanksgiving is one of the nation's most bizarre holidays. We don't know when the event being honored actually took place. Though it is commemorated with a celebratory meal, we don't exactly know what the original participants consumed. And while all Americans today are exhorted to celebrate this historic occasion - with stores actually closing so that families might dine together (one of only two such days on the American retail calendar) - most of us would not have been welcome at that auspicious first feast between the new arrivals and the local Wampanoags. The Pilgrims, after all, were not innocent refugees from persecution. Rather, they were religious activists with repressive goals of their own. Yet here we are, carving the turkey, sending cards to missing kin, and calling home.
How did what was essentially a regional New England holiday with precious little excuse for existence ever assume its current exalted position? Since World War II, Thanksgiving's rise in national importance has paralleled rural Americans' flight to the cities. Today, millions of families are lucky to share more than a meal or two a week, what with the challenges created by the increase in households with two working parents, longer commute times, and children with over-scheduled activity calendars.
In many ways, Thanksgiving has become an attempt to recreate our mythical rural past, when families celebrated the end of their communal work in the fields by gathering 'round the groaning board to feast in an atmosphere of togetherness.
But the increasing significance of this holiday may also stem from our unconscious attempt to find ways in which Americans old and new can share in the nation's past. More than 21 million "new Americans" have entered the country since 1970, bringing with them not only a desire to better themselves, but to become American in every way. Today nearly one in ten U.S. residents is foreign-born, and many of the new arrivals come not from old familiar European origins but from Asia, Latin America, and, increasingly, Africa. The desire to fit in in anyway possible is undeniable.
The selection of foods that have become standard Thanksgiving fare reflect this thought. Turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberries - they certainly are not what was eaten at the first sit-down (venison, duck, cornbread, succotash). Still, these all-American dishes most associated with the contemporary feast deeply embody a national ideal, and represent not so much a hark back to a shared past that never happened, but an attempt to proclaim membership rights for a shared future.
While new immigrants may not prepare a Better Homes and Gardens-inspired menu, what they create instead is a whole new fusion cuisine, initially featuring only minor traditional Thanksgiving elements that become increasingly dominant as the Americanization process becomes more pervasive. It's a process not unlike that which took place among earlier German, Italian, and Irish immigrants.
It has been said that one of Canada's greatest hurdles has been its lack of national symbols and common heritage. Defined by the theme of multiculturalism, rather than the often maligned U.S. melting pot model, Canada has attempted to maintain the cultural individuality of the origins of its citizens from many cultures and nations.
Yet, despite the obvious failures of the melting pot approach - at the very least, most Americans know something of their national and cultural origins - it has simultaneously been this country's continuing strength. While we believe we know who we are in a complex cultural soup, more importantly we take even greater pride in our group identity.
Thanksgiving meets the needs of a diverse society. It is a holiday without ties to creed or ethnicity or national origin, that gives a sense of wholeness in a world so complex that even a made-up cause to celebrate brotherhood is more important than none at all. To meet that need we have reinvented an event from another time that gives us all a sense of common tradition and identity, regardless of our past.