Post Thanksgiving

Yesterday morning, like many others mesmerized by the commercialization of holidays, I had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television.  I can only speak from my own experience, of course, but I know that growing up poor we used to watch this, and that my wife’s family, from different circumstances, also watched it.  The friends with whom we ate our main meal watched it, and given the advertising revenues, I imagine many other people tune in every year as part of the holiday tradition.  What struck me were the testimonials just before or after the commercial breaks.  Celebrities shared what they liked about the holiday and many of them, unsurprisingly, focused on food.  Many indicated that overeating was pleasurable.  I began to think of what it means to be a nation of foodies.

Not everyone is of a cenobitic sensibility, but focusing on the food seems to be paying more attention to the finger pointing at the moon than to the moon itself.  Commercials for television shows of sweaty, nervous chefs wanting to be recognized as the best cooks in the world struck me as somewhat decadent.  Like many professionals I’ve had occasion to eat in “fine restaurants” from time to time.  Do I remember the food for long afterward?  No.  More often I recall the people I was with.  What we talked about.  The food, chefs may be pained to hear, was incidental.  There were deeper issues afoot.  If the internet’s any indication, I’m in the minority here.  Foodies rule.

Special foods on holidays are, naturally enough, a holiday tradition.  Many have their origins in the changing foodstuffs available as the seasons wend their way through their invariable cycle.  Thanksgiving is like the ancient festivals of ingathering—the celebration of plenty ahead of the lean months of living on what we’ve managed to store for the season when winter reigns.  Some animals cope by hibernating until food becomes available again.  Others scavenge their way through chilly, snow-covered days.  Gluttony, however, isn’t primarily a sin against one’s body; it’s the sin of taking more than one’s fair share.  Unequal distribution of wealth is a national sin that grows worse each year.  On Thanksgiving there are many people who don’t have enough to eat.  Jobs can be lost through no fault of one’s own, and want can haunt late November just as readily as jouissance.  Driving home we passed a shopping mall brimming with cars after darkness had fallen.  The larger holiday of Black Friday had begun.

Spinning Wheels

That warm, secure feeling of being home for the holidays never goes away. Admittedly Thanksgiving takes on a different cast for those of us who are vegetarians becoming vegan, but it’s not about the food, really. It’s never been only just about the food. Thankfulness as a way of life seems to hard to obtain when your own government has turned against all the principles that once made America a wonderful nation in which to have been born, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful. As a commuter, I’m especially thankful for time. Each day’s normally spent riding a bus, working, and riding again. Over the past several days I took a train to Boston for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, and then a long train ride back. Followed by a single-day drive to Ithaca and back. I’m thankful for a little time not to be on the move.

Among the many memories for which I’m grateful is a mountain road that divides Glen Kinglas and Glen Croe in Scotland. Known for its splendid view, it’s one of many places that I have had the privilege of visiting. Although sitting still, here in my chair, I recall yet another busy day of driving with friends. Poor graduate students all, we nevertheless knew the value of good company and taking little for granted. As someone who grew up poor, I had managed to move to Boston, travel to Israel and work on a dig, and now I was living in Edinburgh, working toward a doctorate in one of the world’s great universities. That afternoon, however, I was out viewing what the wider world had to offer. The name of the viewpoint on the A83—from which that world all seemed visible—was “Rest and Be Thankful.”

The name speaks volumes. New Jersey certainly isn’t Scotland. My job is not that for which I trained. I continue to live as if I were a graduate student while friends have purchased houses and furnished them nicely. Today none of that matters. I’m not on a bus, train, or plane. I’m not glued to my seat in an automobile. I’m thankful to have some time to sit and reflect. Catch up, perchance, on a little bit of sleep. Unstructured time is perhaps the rarest commodity in a capitalistic society. Today I have it in relative abundance. No turkeys have lost their lives on my account and I’m able to rest and be thankful. There’s still a long way to go, but for today I’ll enjoy family and stillness. And I am thankful.

Holiday Season

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I stop to think about what holidays really do. “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs have popped up like winter dandelions as Trump signs consider to litter the landscape. Thanksgiving, however, gave me the opportunity to forget about all of this for a while. The culture of signs. Signs telling us we must bow down and worship. The holidays signal a season when it is okay to hibernate and forget that more powerful forces out there may wish you harm. Part of the trouble is that those who are coming sometimes can’t see beyond their own interests. Perhaps what I do for a living conflicts with the job I’m paid to do. Conscience dictates that one or the other must go. But conscience is such an old fashioned idea.

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The holidays start with Thanksgiving, but it is now the Monday after. Those in liturgical traditions of Christianity will note that we are in Advent, a season of anticipation. I do wonder what we’re anticipating. Perhaps it’s because Thanksgiving came and went in a blur of travel weariness this year. The few days when commuting wasn’t an issue were the opportunity to stay still for a while and not look at news feeds and reflect on all we’re thankful for. I started hearing Christmas carols in stores shortly after Halloween. We’re entering the season of money in a country in love with lucre. Take a close look and see what lies in that manger.

Most years the stretch of dark months of November through January are accompanied by a sense of peace. Human beings loving each other and getting along. I guess I’ve been away from the news for a few days. I know there was a Black Friday last week. I also know that money has a strange way of funneling upward, a kind of osmosis of Mammon. On my quiet strolls I wonder what we, as a country, truly value. On the highway stuck in traffic with thousands of others returning home, I try to think that in these metal shells are living, breathing, loving human beings. Many of them only trying to get ahead. We’re all in a rush since there’s so much to do before we allow ourselves another holiday. Wouldn’t life be better with more days for reflection? I’d rather not politicize the holiday. Keeping Christ in Christmas seems to be asking for one not to forget the offering plate. I’m wondering about those sleeping in the street not far from Trump Tower. I’m wondering what ever became of conscience.

Abundance

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A few weeks before Leonard Cohen died I saw a story on how his song “Hallelujah” had been done to death. Covered and recovered, it seemed to be on every cover artist’s playlist. It is a haunting song, however, and the notion of a cold and broken hallelujah feels somehow appropriate this Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong—I am thankful for more things than I can name or would care to share with complete strangers on the internet. In fact, when I literally tried to find a job in Canada in anticipation of a horrible November surprise, one of my immediate regrets was that I’d no longer have American Thanksgiving to celebrate. Thanksgiving, to me, has been images of a cozy indoors with special food while the chill takes over outside. Two days in a row off of work. Sleeping until I’m not tired any more rather than waking according to schedule, no matter how troubling the night might have been. In short, feeling safe and secure in a world growing colder.

Since the first week of November the iciness has been growing more intense. I know it’s the circles I go around in—and perhaps they are small enough to call them semi-circles—but I have seen more sad and depressed and scared faces in the past weeks than I have seen in my previous half-century on this planet. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and even vegetarians look forward to something special by way of fancy nourishment. But it feels like a cold and broken hallelujah to me. Entrepreneurs have already been reminding us that tomorrow is Black Friday. We should get our game-faces on and our credit cards out and head to our favorite retail establishments. Pack up our troubles in the old plastic bag and spend, spend, spend.

Thanksgiving, of course, was an originally generic religious holiday. It’s hard to give thanks without someone to, well, thank. You could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or even one of those who thanks dharma, karma, or chance. Just be glad that we’re here right now and even though the wind is gusting and there’s perhaps a bit of snow in the air, we have an indoors where nobody hostile is looking for means to exploit us any further than we wish to be exploited. That our planet, for the time being, still supports human life. And that by any measure other than the Electoral College we all really want progress and fair treatment for all. I am thankful and mindful of those who had to sacrifice to allow us the privilege of being here today. It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful.

Holiday Fervor

AmericaFavHoliTime comes in different varieties. In temperate regions where the changing seasons keep the time of year for us, we tend to have seasonal holidays. Christmas and other December holidays mark the shortest days of the year with the hope that light will soon become more abundant. Spring rituals, near the time of the vernal equinox, encourage the return of fertility to the earth. Autumnal holidays mark the approach of darkness once again as the world twirls endlessly on. Summer, bright and warm, doesn’t really lend itself to so many holidays. These thoughts came back to me as I read Bruce David Forbes’s America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Forbes doesn’t cover all the special days, but focuses on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. These are five holidays marked, in some sense, by spending. They are often, although Forbes doesn’t really spend too much time on it, the focal point of cultural wars where various Christian groups wish to reclaim a certain day for its “rightful heritage.”

One of the real values of books like America’s Favorite Holidays is that it is clear that these claims of “keeping Christ in Christmas” and its kin are samples of collective amnesia. Many “Christmas” traditions predated Christianity. Others developed concurrent with it, but in “pagan” contexts. Christmas trees, for example, didn’t originate in the latitudes of Bethlehem. The same may be said for just about any holiday. Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving, of the five explored, are the lone exceptions. These are fairly recent holidays and neither one marks a solstice or equinox. They celebrate aspects of life we value, making them sacred time. Don’t expect to get Valentine’s Day off of work, however. Capitalism never makes room for love.

Christmas, of course, is the holiday most under dispute. All holidays may be commercialized, but for Christmas spending is central. Forbes insightfully shows that Christmas is, and may always have been, both a cultural holiday and a religious holiday. The cultural aspect of the season is the one that most people celebrate. The birth of Jesus—which we are fairly certain was not in December—was a latter add-on. A baptism, if you will, of a pre-existing holiday. The winter solstice holiday is a staple of cultures in climes where the difference in available light and warmth is appreciable. It marks the point of the year when things start getting better. Yes, the real cold of winter has not yet set in, and there will be months of snow and ice. Still, once the solstice is passed, there is more light to help us cope. Celebrating sacred time, whether secular or not, is the natural reaction of people who crave light over darkness.

To Whom? For What?

Thanksgiving remains one of the few relatively uncommercialized holidays. Not tied to a specific religion, but with a general sense that gratitude is important, there’s nothing really to sell. Grocery stores may see a bump in profits, but we need to eat every day, so this is only a matter of degree. The icons of Halloween quickly transform to those of Christmas and even Thanksgiving begins to pale next to Black Friday as companies give employees the only four-day weekend of the entire year. Without money changing hands what can there possibly be to celebrate?

The strident question of to whom one is thankful is graciously subsumed under that of for what. History has demonstrated that the relative abundance that we enjoy in matters of gustatory gifts is indeed not to be taken for granted. Droughts are realities. Dustbowls and depressions occur. In many parts of the world starvation is stark reality. Having enough—even too much—to eat is less a sign of blessing for good behavior than it is an obligation to help others. Want is a specter that no one can debunk. The homeless here in a land of plenty remind us that holidays are truly opportunities to be thankful. Thankful simply for being able to get by. Not for what we buy.

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Holidays have their origins in religion. They may wander far from their foundations, but we have religions to thank for every day there’s a break in the routine of trooping into the office for yet another stint of work. Days when staying home is acceptable and spending is purely optional. The stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving is long. This goal can only be reached by a frame of mind rather than a state of one’s bank account. Having a day when money falls from focus is cause for thankfulness indeed.

Thank You

Comments being rare on this blog, I do read them when they come along. Recently I had a reader comment, in the form of a question (as sometimes happens): “Do Native American Indians do ‘Thanksgiving’?” Although I’m fairly certain this was intended as a rhetorical question, I was raised a literalist and couldn’t help trying to formulate an answer. Although I can make no claims to know Native American culture well (I wish I did) it led me to ponder the concept of Thanksgiving. No doubt the idea had at least informal religious beginnings. Even with the early European settlers, a religious diversity was already appearing. Still, although the Native Americans lost pretty much everything, they were still involved, at least according to the early accounts. The great spirit they thanked was not likely conceived of in the way that the god of the pilgrims was, and yet, thankfulness is a natural human response. Writers, often fully aware that their work deserves publication, frequently thank an editor for accepting it. It’s a deeply rooted biological response.

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For some of us, Thanksgiving is more about having time to recuperate after non-stop work for about ten months. The standard business calendar gives the occasional long weekend, but after New Year’s the only built-in four-day weekend is Thanksgiving. It is that oasis we see in the distance as we crawl through the desert sand. Time to be together with those we love rather than those we’re paid to spend time with. To rest and be thankful.

Among the highlands of Argyll, in western Scotland, is the picturesque Glen Croe. Years ago, driving with friends through the rugged scenery of boulders and heather, the little car struggled with its burden of four passengers. We stopped at a viewpoint known as “Rest and Be Thankful.” The name derives from an inscription left by soldiers building the Drover’s road in 1753, at the highest point in the climb. The Jacobite movement and the Killing Time had instilled considerable religious angst to the Scotland of the previous century and led to the calamity of Culloden less than a decade before the road was laid. These religious differences led to excessive bloodshed throughout a realm supposedly unified by the monarchy. Even though no natives protested displacement, religion led to hatred and mistrust, as it often does. Is not Rest and Be Thankful, however, for everyone, no matter their faith or ethnicity? And in case anyone is wondering, yes, this rhetorical question contains a metaphor to contemplate. Rest and be thankful.