Everywhere I go people are still discussing Thanksgiving celebrations. Their turkey was a big hit. They cooked more or less food than they needed. Thumbs up or down on ‘Thrifty Thursday’—the commercial prequel to ‘Black Friday.’ A new pumpkin pie recipe got rave reviews. Hosts of adult children and all their offspring are groaning as they clean up behind by their visitors. One friend is still looking for her husband’s I Phone. It was last seen in the same room as her 18 month old grandson. Unfortunately, no amusing You Tube video offers consolation. Another friend thinks that her kitchen may be in good working order by Christmas—just in time for the next onslaught. I’m sure there were family get-togethers that left folks less inclined to get together with family but I haven’t heard of any—just people enormously grateful for the chance to be with loved ones even with all the chaos and inconvenience that comes with long holiday weekend visits.
Sitting with my friend Karen over a cup of tea, she described her let down over the superb meal she and her family had shared. It surprised her. Preparing it together had been such a great bonding experience!Two days of planning and effort had gone into its execution. Her daughter-in-law-to-be wanted to do her family’s traditional shared gratitude reflections. But Karen didn’t think that would go down so well in a family adverse to public confessionals. Instead the group sat down at the table, thanked the chefs and demolished the fruits of their collective labor in about 20 minutes flat. The experience left both women feeling empty. Didn’t hearts and minds need to be fed in addition to tummies and taste buds? Wasn’t there a way to make this day different and more memorable than others? Wasn’t Thanksgiving supposed to mean something special? I agreed with Karen. It’s discouraging to work so hard on a meal and see it devoured in minutes with no acknowledgement of the unique purpose of the day. Just as we put time into planning for our food, we need to plan for our meaning. Purpose doesn’t magically materialize at our table any more than the food on our plates. If we leave that part of our celebration to happenstance it likely won’t happen.
At our table, we are accustomed now to the idea that Thanksgiving isn’t really about the meal. Good food matters but the meal is the symbol of what we have come to celebrate. We have passed through another year safely. We are saving up for another year, storing away memories of our time together. This is when everyone who is able makes a special effort to be there. We stop before we eat to talk about what is special about being Americans. We have ritualized the practice because we don’t trust ourselves to make it happen otherwise. Sure, we would have a bigger, better meal than usual (and everyone agreed that it was the best yet) but when it was over we’d have nothing more than fuller bellies. A ritual gives structure to our coming together and reminds us to stop and pay attention to this day and time together. As a result, we have years of a compelling tradition that has grown over time and that we associate with the holiday of Thanksgiving. This along with good food is what fills us with gratitude.
We aren’t slaves to a fixed ritual because that would bore everyone, instill thoughtlessness and incite rebellion. This year we adapted our practice and used “A Memory Harvest” to tell stories about people whom we love who are no longer with us. Children and grandchildren heard about 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Americans who lived life in different ways and taught us lasting life lessons: “Adapt.” “Be kind.” “Take risks.” “Work hard.” “Be interesting.” “Have family dinners.” “No matter how busy you are there’s always time for play.”
I listened to Karen and Karen listened to me. “I think we’ll try your way next year. I hated getting up from the table and feeling like this was just another meal. We hadn’t created enough to remember.” National holidays are too special to let them pass without passing on the stories of your family and our nation. When you begin to experience the magical connections that appear when you connect the two, the holidays transcend food. They become about all the ways you and your loved ones can celebrate US.