Monday, November 28, 2005

A Few Thoughts on Thanksgiving (mainly because I didn't have anything better to talk about)

In 1621, the Puritan colonists at Plymouth were facing a bleak winter. As legend has it, the pilgrims’ crops failed dismally and a grisly death by starvation was quickly becoming a certainty. Before winter took hold with a vengeance however, the colonists were saved by a local Indian tribe who gave them enough stores of food to hold them over until spring. In gratitude for this selfless gesture that saved their lives, the colonists invited the Indians to their settlement and repaid them with a magnificent feast known forever afterwards in the annals of American mythology as the nation’s first Thanksgiving. I’m sure that had the natives had the slightest inkling of what those pale and pathetically ill-equipped Europeans had in store for them over the next three hundred years or so, they would have put a little extra effort into finding some hemlock to spike the cranberry sauce with.

Fortunately for me the Wampanoag tribe of what is now Massachusetts, despite all the perceived mysticism often attached to early Native American culture, lacked a competent psychic and the Indians nursed the pilgrims through that winter. Ever since, the Thanksgiving feast has flourished into a revered American holiday showcasing the fraternity and cooperation of two cultures, completely alien to one another, toward a common good (which was mainly saving white-skinned religious fanatics so that my satellite service provider can make sure that the only channel available to me is the Trinity Broadcast Network when I am late paying my television bill). At least, that’s the way it was taught to me in the 1970s. The bit about forced land seizures, broken treaties, smallpox, genocide, wholesale slaughter and discrimination was in a different (and much shorter) chapter in the history book safely removed from the Mayflower episode so that we could enjoy this treasured holiday relatively guilt-free.

And a treasured holiday it is. Personally, Thanksgiving is my third favorite holiday of the year, right behind Independence Day (where people get mind-blowingly intoxicated before going outside to play with things that explode) and St. Patrick’s Day (where people get mind-blowingly intoxicated before going inside to play with things that explode – which, in my pre-marriage years, primarily consisted of nubile young college girls that had a hard time holding their liquor). In the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in just as much tradition as Christmas, but lasting over three days. In my family, the tradition is unshakeable. Every Thanksgiving is the same and consisting of inviolable ritual that, though almost scripted, remains comfortable and pleasant.

Though Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, it starts on the day before. For me, I always depart my house early on Wednesday afternoon with my wife, three kids, dog and hunting rifle in a futile attempt to beat the holiday rush to the Northern Michigan wilderness where my parents live. I typically find myself stopped cold within five miles of my house, stuck in either a traffic jam of indescribable savagery or the first true winter snow storm of the season. This year it was the storm for me. My brother, who left an hour and a half after me, got both and spent eight hours in the car to complete a trip that usually takes half that. Once he finally pulled into the small town where my parents live (which is made up of two bars, a post office, a liquor store and a restaurant that is open for business once every five years or so), we embarked upon the second of our holiday traditions: the bar hop.

Surprisingly, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest bar night of the year in the Midwestern United States. I would not have believed this had I not once been a bartender. It is true though and neither me, nor my brother, are likely to pass on opportunities to party like that. Like every other year, we started at the town’s Fraternal Order of Eagles aerie. In addition to having cheap (though horridly American and canned) beer, they also raffle three guns away on the Saturday following Thanksgiving and we both needed to get tickets for this lottery. To my amazement, there were only two other people there besides us and the bar tender. I guess that is to be expected though when the weather’s bad, the town is only about 400 people strong, contains a large Amish population and the bar you’re in closes at 10pm if it has less than four patrons inside. Still, the Eagles did pretty good business that night thanks to the alcoholic acumen of the four paying customers it was servicing. We managed to keep it open until 11, but once we lost a soldier that had been in there since noon, the bartender announced last call and asked us for a ride down the road to the competition. We obliged and were rewarded with a round of real beer (Molsen for me) and an order of Buffalo Wings for our trouble. The second bar, though empty when we arrived, was nearly full when we left at closing time with the arrival of holiday travelers delayed by the snow storm and traffic. The highlight of the night was listening to the cook, a homely married overweight woman with openly bisexual tendencies discussing intentions of trying to take home an even more overweight man who was barely conscious and had apparently forgotten to put his dentures in before going out for the evening. I realize that standards of attractiveness vary drastically between cultures but I never would have guessed that this cultural variance could be so extreme that Ernest Borgnine could be a sex symbol a mere three hours drive from my front door. Then again, I guess that while in the midst of an epic tequila bender I could have mistaken Ernest Borgnine for one of the Spice Girls myself.

Thanks to Thanksgiving’s Wednesday traditions, Thursday’s Thanksgiving traditions typically get off to a slow start. After a breakfast of punch-flavored Gatorade and a handful of industrial strength aspirin, I resign myself to the fact that I can’t possibly handle the sound of gunfire by nine in the morning and cancel my deer hunting plans. Around ten in the morning, the dog starts barking incessantly at the various forms of wildlife congregating in my parents’ front yard and I start considering putting that rifle I brought to a different use than I had first intended when I packed it. At 10:30 I took the kids out sledding, an activity that, though excruciating for me, was a blast for them so we stayed out for over an hour, at which point I believed myself able to handle solid food again and took them back inside for lunch. At 12:30, the traditional Thanksgiving Day Detroit Lions football game started, which they lost against the Atlanta Falcons, 27 to 7. We have our Thanksgiving Day traditions, the Detroit Lions have theirs (Sidenote: as I was writing this, I received word that the Detroit Lions fired head coach Steve Mariuchi for the team’s dismal performance last Thursday).

Dinner arrived at the table at five. Along with the turkey, we gorged ourselves on stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, bread, pickles, cole slaw and pasta. Unable to move, my two older kids and I retired to the TV room to catch another football game that I can’t remember since I fell asleep on the couch, with a kid in each arm, before watching five minutes of it. In all, it was as close to a perfect day as I could have possibly hoped for.

The Friday tradition is the part that generally doesn’t concern me much since it involves Christmas shopping, a sport that my wife is equipped for far better than I am. While my wife and mother drove hours back to civilization to find stores, I did more sledding and more eating. We drove back late that night, through yet another snow storm and arrived home just before midnight.

In closing, Thanksgiving really is as close to a perfect holiday as one can get in my opinion. Though national in nature, it really is a celebration of family instead of such vague concepts as patriotism or religion and gives one a reason to look within and take stock of things that to truly be thankful for. As for myself, I forced myself to pause and recognize what I have to be thankful for. I am thankful for my family, for through all my faults, they seem to love me no matter what I do (my kids and dog anyway, my wife is still pissed that I got so drunk Wednesday night). I am thankful that at least once every year we can get together and afford to put enough food on our dinner table to feed Ecuador. I am thankful that despite all the hardships my family faces, they are mostly trivial in the big scheme of things and no one is facing homelessness or some life-threatening illness. And I am thankful that the Wampanoag tribe of Indians did not have a psychic worth a damn to dissuade them from saving a group of Puritan lunatics with a tragic lack of agricultural skills and ending a truly awesome tradition before it even got started.


Anonymous Grab'em said...

Cheap beer and free guns, now that is tradition to be proud of. You crazy Americans.

Happy Thanksgiving!

12:38 AM  
Blogger JEP said...

Hey,we learned our lesson from the War of 1812! Cheap beer and free guns was one of the only ways we thought we could keep those wiley Canadians contained north of Maine (Though cheap beer came afterwards since the Canadians must have taken every American able to brew a decent beer back north with them when they left).

5:43 AM  

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