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Don't let this be the anti-Thanksgiving

A random and unscientific survey conducted by me starting when I was about 6 years old has revealed that the favorite holiday of many, many Americans is Thanksgiving.

Imprecise, perhaps, but entirely credible. It is my favorite, too. Thanksgiving fits into one long, lovely day of anticipation, satiety and early dusk. It defies excessive commercialization because it does not mandate gifts. It invites a walk after dinner or a nap after turkey.

Thanksgiving comes from the heart but is observed in a ritual that accommodates both Yankee reserve and American abbondanza. Pretend that it's stuffing and cranberries and pie you are grateful for, when more deeply it is the blessings of home and family and friends. No one will make fun of you.

Thanksgiving applies to everyone — for which we are un-ironically thankful. Although Christian Pilgrims designed the formal observance, to hold the feast they needed the lifesaving hospitality of Native people, who shared the day. Thankful for hardship survived, for the help of strangers.

The holiday applies universally because being thankful together still allows for individual and private expression of who it is that we are grateful to. Thankful for the freedom to say thanks according to our own beliefs. Thankful to set aside griefs and grievances long enough to appreciate the good.

Tradition perhaps applies most inspiringly when volunteers spend part of their Thanksgiving Day serving dinner to neighbors who would be left alone or are not up to making a feast. Thankful again for the help of strangers in a time of hardship, and for being able to help.

We are all bummed by what in 2020 seems to be the anti-Thanksgiving. This is the year that rains on every single parade, including Macy's. In the pre-vaccine phase of COVID-19, medical advice and common sense say to suspend the traditions. We have been warned: Welcome travelers into a warm kitchen, sit them down in a packed dining room, share laughter and maybe hold hands to say grace, use a finger to wipe extra pie off the knife — at everyone's peril. Someone could easily get sick with coronavirus infection.

Heeding advice to stay apart and celebrate small is not the ultimate anti-Thanksgiving. Infecting each other would be, and it could ruin all future Thanksgivings with the recollection of serious illness that did not have to happen.

Yet, precisely because of the isolating and quarantining, because of 2020's exhausting political drama and upheavals, we need the consolation of knowing we somehow celebrate with the important people in our lives.

I've been thinking about why Thanksgiving is so many people's favorite, and thus so hard to shrink down or let go. It's not the menu; it's those cherished people, among whom are some who won't be at the table even if we set it for them. The first adult to tell me that Thanksgiving was her favorite was my mother. She loved the holiday when we visited her family in New York and she loved it when she was the cook for 20 people in Connecticut.

One year the turkey was so heavy that she needed a muscular son to heft it out of the oven.

She still loved it, maybe even more.

The year that ended her tenure as chief cook may have been the one when the dining room couldn't hold everybody. We made the dining table into a buffet and arranged chairs in other rooms. By the time my sister and I finished dishing out servings and got our own plates, a brother was clearing away the dirty dishes from those who had finished eating.

That is my least favorite Thanksgiving memory. Eating in waves is not a meal together. We never did it that way again.

We hope never again to have to do another Thanksgiving the way we will observe the holiday this Thursday, either. We have good reasons for that hope. We will wait till next year. But even scaled down this year to one or two or a few people, the day will still feel familiar when we get to the part where we remember Thanksgivings past, and who was there, and why we love Thanksgiving.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board. 


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