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24 November 2009
Thanksgiving dinner as cultural artifact

Turkey and stuffing. Friends and family. Pilgrims and Indians. Airports and highways. Football and pie. And these words, with which President Abraham Lincoln began the annual national repetition of that old first turkey-less Pilgrim feast of 1621: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” What does the American Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, culinary and otherwise, make of the world?

—Nate Barksdale

1. What does Thanksgiving dinner assume about the way the world is?

Thanksgiving dinner assumes that food is central to gatherings of kith and kin… that people want to gather together on one day, often traveling great distances for the purpose of being together on one day, for one big meal. It assumes that people will be full of gratitude as they gather as such.

—Christy Tennant
2. What does Thanksgiving dinner assume about the way the world should be?

It assumes that everyone deserves a feast at least once a year, as evidenced by the number of churches and charities that host TG dinners for needy people.

—Christy Tennant

It assumes that everybody should be gathering with others, breaking bread with either relatives or friends for a meal.  Folks found out to be spending the day alone are usually invited to a co-workers/neighbors/acquaintance’s gathering. In my single days, being displaced across the country from my relatives, I would regularly be checked up on by many friends to be sure I wouldn’t spend the day alone.

—Connie Z.
3. What does Thanksgiving dinner make possible?

Thanksgiving Dinner makes possible the idea that everyone is grateful and that families enjoy being together.

—Christy Tennant

Also, Thanksgiving Dinner provides an anchor for an entire day of togetherness. In my family, that includes outdoor games (either family football, where everyone participates, either as a player or as a cheerleader, OR kayak races if we happen to be at the lake house), indoor games (Quiddler or pinochle), children and dogs running around the house, much noise and commotion, rich conversation (we have a bunch of theologians in my family, and we run the gamut of political affiliations), movies, watching football, and much laughter from morning til night.

—Christy Tennant

Thanksgiving makes it possible to have a clear start to the Christmas season. After tonight, it is officially ok to listen to Christmas music.

J Ben

This year, it made possible to see my family before I head overseas for Christmas and much of next year.  And for that, I am thankful.

4. What does Thanksgiving dinner make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Thanksgiving dinner makes it impossible for that idea (see #3) to last for long. The Norman Rockwell image doesn’t last. Family tensions, bickering among cousins, siblings, competition between family members on everything from child-rearing to cooking, differences on how to spend the Friday after (this one wants to go shopping and that one wants to go hiking) all color my family Thanksgiving, and from talking with my friends a few days later, I know I am not alone.

—Christy Tennant

Perhaps it makes it more difficult to appreciate, enjoy and be thankful for the significance of the rest of the meals you eat with people over the course of the year. When you eat with someone on Thanksgiving, it is a big deal. but a meal in the middle of July now has less significance.

It also makes it impossible to get the mail today.

J Ben
5. What new culture is created in response?

The strictly American Thanksgiving dinner culture, which includes a specific menu (each family has its own variation, but staples include Turkey, stuffing, potatoes, squash, cranberries in some form, and pies). I love talking with my friends from other countries who have relocated to America. My Indian friends cook a traditional American TG dinner, but they add Indian chiles and spices to everything. Also, the culture of serving at homeless shelters, as many of my friends do. My church hosts a big Thanksgiving dinner for anyone who wants to come, in partnership with Mercy Chefs and the Bowery Mission. They create the Family Thanksgiving Dinner times several hundred, even showing a film afterward in the sanctuary.

—Christy Tennant

Those football games have little to do with gratitude, but the time of year and federal holiday make it a convenient to show sports to a willing audience.  And in many homes it’s a mostly male audience, as the women are in the kitchen.

Black Friday is also convenient due to the federal holiday and the revving up for the December holiday spending.  What a smart idea that stores offer low prices early to ensure that spenders buy and don’t leave it until the last minute.

—Connie Z.