Thanksgiving is certainly my favorite holiday. Until lately so peaceful, uneventful, and familial, it demands nothing more than gathering together in a proper spirit to eat an unusually large meal.
Thanksgiving is American, but, alone among American holidays, has nothing to do with the military. Thanksgiving has to do with peaceable survival. Whether you are a member of the DAR or the descendant of slaves or recent immigrants, Thanksgiving is about the generations. It’s about the struggle of each family to gain a foothold, earn a livelihood, and avoid adversity. Each of us who celebrates is celebrating not just a nation but a family and that family’s particular and miraculous story.
We all know the Pilgrims encountered a hostile place. Then as now, life was unkind, and the essential task was to avoid illness, starvation, destitution, and death. In the Pilgrims’ case, survival entailed building alliances, banding together, welcoming newcomers, and becoming more savvy about living in an environment that was harsh and incomplete. The Pilgrims’ adaptability, no less than their faith and courage, continue to furnish a pattern of virtue for all Americans today.
Of particular importance were their concerted efforts to prevail as a civil community. The individualism we so prize today, and that we think of as being so essential to America, was not an option for the early colonists. Practically and spiritually, individualism was a heretical abberation, one likely to bring chaos and death in its train.
It’s hard to imagine all that the Pilgrims endured. The material comforts and security that are staples of modern American life are baffles, cutting off our imaginative access to the past, with its zeitgeist of solidarity and far-seeing sacrifice.
My father took this picture in the 1940s. It shows his grandmother and her sons gathered around the table about to enjoy a holiday meal. One of her grandsons reaches for the dressing. The many women who prepared this feast are not in the picture because the table wasn’t big enough, and they hung out and ate together at a second table nearer the kitchen anyway. Reproductions of the Last Supper and of the Virgin Mary (and elsewhere pictures of the Angelus and of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns) adorn the walls.
My great-grandmother’s face is full of benignity. Her children have all flourished despite being left fatherless in 1918, when my great-grandfather died in a coal-mining accident; most of their seven children were still in their teens. The children all worked and somehow became educated, the older ones becoming coal-miners, then mine superintendents, then jointly owning a coal mine: strategies pursued so that some of the younger children could stay in school longer, becoming teachers and engineers. There were still sorrows and disappointments—the son to her left had multiple sclerosis and would die in the 50s (his wife is by his side to assist him)—, but their strength and sacrifice laid down the foundation that enabled me and my siblings, and my cousins, to thrive.
Today, most of the people in this picture are buried in the graveyard of an Orthodox church that stands on a hill above the house. They helped build the church on land that had once been the family’s potato field. Even when I was a child, the custom was to walk up to the church for the long holiday services, then back down to the house for the holiday meals (and for the long hours of visiting, card-playing, and yes drinking afterward that were a fable of naughtiness to a girl like me).
Thank goodness for their goodness, I say at Thanksgiving.