Thanksgiving truly is America's holiday. The fourth Thursday in November is the day we gather and give thanks. It is a holiday that has nothing to do with any one faith, and yet it has everything to do with faith. It is the day we, as a nation, share a chaotic few hours of happiness and a commitment to maintaining traditions. Like most Americans our most quintessentially American holiday has multiple origins.
America's first Thanksgiving was celebrated over one hundred and fifty years before anyone even dreamed of a United States of America. In 1621 a small group of transplanted religious dissidents, ill prepared for life as subsistence farmers on the coast of Massachusetts, grateful to have managed to bring in a crop that might see them through the harsh and brutal winter, ordained for themselves a day of Thanksgiving and the neighbors, members of the Wampanoag tribe, came over to share the feast. Historians argue over the first Thanksgiving, and it has been politicized in recent decades by people who have never had to claw a living out of the land. But I think in that first Thanksgiving we can see the best of the American spirit. The American spirit is innovative, it is hard working, it can't be crushed by bad harvests, brutal weather, crushing loneliness or exile. Most of all, at our best, we Americans are stubborn. Survival is often a matter of stubbornness.
The man most responsible for reviving and nationalizing the tradition of Thanksgiving understood stubbornness. He understood hard work and he understood heartbreak. In November of 1864, after more than three years of bloody combat that turned farmers' fields into bloody graveyards, the Civil War seemed nowhere near close to ending and Abraham Lincoln, the raw boned primarily self taught lawyer from the frontier fringes of the American midwest, was the unlikely embattled president of a divided country. The war had already killed so many men, it had already created a generation of widows and spinsters, it had turned brother against brother and state against state. Most frighteningly, the war was not over. In 1864 a day of Thanksgiving doubtless seemed bizarre. What, exactly, did Americans have to be thankful for?
The truth is, even in despair, even in our darkest hours, Americans have always had a great deal to be thankful for. President Lincoln would never observe the second Thanksgiving, he would never have the joy of observing a post-war Thanksgiving. He was the victim of a theatrical and cowardly assassin in the early months of 1865. But much as the brutal reality of the Civil War did not lessen Americans' willingness to be thankful, Lincoln's brutal assassination did not break the stubborn spirit of America.
This year, we are told, is different. Covid-19 and "shut-down" have driven tens of millions of American apart. This crisis we are facing in this hard year of 2020 has driven us apart, not together. We are facing an invisible enemy, a disease, and we have been told by "experts" --often demonstrably hypocritical "experts" who are often caught not following their own dictates-- that we must face this enemy alone so as not to infect our loved ones. And so a holiday that has, for so many, always been about togetherness, will this year be a desperately lonely day for too many Americans.
But the reality is we have always had much to be thankful for. And we have always had hard Thanksgivings. Thanksgiving is about tradition. The potatoes are made this way. The gravy always needs to be stirred a little more. The turkey is usually a little too dry. Someone always forgets something. My grandmother --and, supposedly, her mother before her-- always made a habit of forgetting the olive and celery dish until desert. Every family has its own traditions. Thanksgiving is very much a do it yourself holiday. A classmate in school --a fifth generation San Franciscan from an ethnic Chinese family-- once told me that the first Thanksgiving her family had ever celebrated was the year of the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Chinatown had been mainly destroyed in the earthquake. But the family had survived. Months later they were rebuilding and somehow it felt appropriate to celebrate this essentially American holiday of Thanksgiving. Her great-grandfather bought the family's first turkey. No one in her family had ever cooked a turkey before, so they cooked it, as she put it, "Peking style." Over a hundred years later her family still cooked a turkey "Peking style" for Thanksgiving. To me that is as American as my grandma Ruthie's "eingemachte bonnen" --green beans with garlic and vinegar. American beans, American ingredients, but the recipe is rooted somewhere in the Slavic lands east of Berlin.
Thanksgiving is, like America, about new beginnings. But it is also always about remembrance. Sometimes there is a new seat at the table, sometimes there is an empty chair. Sometimes a perfectly ordinary Thanksgiving in a perfectly ordinary year becomes the dinner we look back on for the rest of our lives. A few years ago I was privileged to meet a woman who had lived through most of the twentieth century, and she told me about the last Thanksgiving she spent with her siblings. It was the Thanksgiving before the war, the Thanksgiving before the attack on Pearl Harbor. She didn't know it then but it was the last Thanksgiving dinner she would share with all of her brothers. A year later the family would be scattered. Her two older brothers would be in uniform. One in the Pacific, one headed towards the European theatre. Only one would come home. She would remember that last Thanksgiving with her brothers until the end of her life.
Loss, grief, stubbornness, and work are all the privileges of a life well lived. If you are privileged enough to live long enough, if you are lucky enough to live a full life and care about others, you will lose people you care about. You will have hard times. But you will have good times as well. Your life will become fuller in surprising ways, but there will be empty chairs.
This Thanksgiving most of us will have empty chairs for one reason or another. With luck the chairs will not be permanently empty. And regardless of how hard or lonely this Thanksgiving may be we all have reason to give thanks, if only for the memories from past years and our enduring, stubborn, American hope for the future. Covid-19 and shutdown will not crush America and will not crush America's Thanksgiving. Our enemies have no place at the table or in our hearts or minds. They will be footnotes in history, less significant than that year the turkey wasn't dry. Less meaningful than my great grandmother's vinegar beans. Like Abraham Lincoln in 1864 we may be bloodied and battered --President Lincoln almost didn't win his second term, and frankly the stars seemed to align to punish him in every way throughout his years in office-- but we are not broken. We are not defeated. And, even if we eat alone this year we are not alone. We are Americans. We are America. And whatever you make of this, our Thanksgiving, it is not just yours but all of ours. This year and last year and next year, our meals and our lives, our fate, our hope and our stubbornness are woven together. And so this year, this Thanksgiving of 2020, I hope you are able to give thanks with the ones you love. And, even if you eat alone, remember please... you are not alone when you give thanks. Your thanksgiving is our thanksgiving. And America's thanksgiving will always matter.