It’s nearly dawn here in my state of Arizona, and already lights are coming on as my fellow Americans rise to prepare for Thanksgiving. Whether to baste the turkey one last time, beat the traffic, or carve out a moment of solitude in a house overflowing with guests, we are all getting a start on what I see as possibly the most American of holidays.
How Thanksgiving reflects U.S. cultural values:
1. It epitomizes our world view of seeking solidarity, equality, and collaboration with our neighbors while also being rooted in a self-perception of “exceptionalism.” It is the time of year when many school children reenact the national myth of our country’s founding as seen through the narrative of the pilgrims and the natives sharing a table. It’s heartwarming, but also depends on some serious denial about what the holiday means to many indigenous peoples – the ones we wiped out once we regained our strength from that tasty meal. It also has pretty strong religious overtones, which suit this strongly religious country.
2. It is an extreme challenge to prepare a massive meal that incorporates all of the traditional foods and all of one’s family’s tastes by around 2 pm. This taps into our competitive natures, depends on our time management and goal-orientation, and allows us to feel successful. It is also hard work for work’s sake, which feeds our Puritan mentality of self-righteousness.
3. It is syncretic and adaptable, which not only provides an opportunity for showcasing individual flair, but also allows our many immigrant groups to participate with their own recipes. Most families I know serve the traditional foods alongside something special that one of their relatives or heritage groups ate. For example, in our house we often eat Korean noodles (jap jae) alongside the turkey and mashed potatoes.
4. It is about food and family. In our hurried, mobile, and individualistic lives, Thanksgiving is a sanctioned, nearly required moment to stop working (once the work is done) and be with the people who matter, hence the misgivings many harbor about the drum beat of Christmas shopping). With four whole days off (more than the single day/day and a half we get for Christmas), it really is most people’s single best chance to go home.
5. It is efficient. In just a few days’ time, you can complete roundtrip travel, see family, buy all of your Christmas gifts, and relax in front of a football game. It’s a lot of work, but the cost benefit analysis is favorable.
6. It is tradition. In our future-oriented, risk-embracing, technology-loving society, taking a single long weekend out for nostalgia and our national myth is a comforting recalibration. And, when living in a country that continues to experience demographic change, it is reassuring to spend one day recreating the bygone era of our imagination.
Thanksgiving is simple and complicated, overwhelming and restorative, and 100% U.S. American. Won’t you enjoy a slice of pumpkin pie?