In thinking about Thanksgiving, I began to count the number of tropes associated with this most American of holidays. There is the wholesome family reunion trope; and, the equally popular, especially on the big screen, image of the not-so-wholesome family reunion. What can possibly be said about Thanksgiving that’s new, fresh, never been said before?
It’s a fairly recent holiday, as, say opposed to Christmas or Easter; purely secular, but with overtones of religion in the effort to remind folks to be grateful, and some family gatherings wouldn’t be complete without a member-by-member enumeration of what one is grateful for during the meal. The menu is given countless discussions in newspaper food sections and even more countless recipes for the main course and all the sides. The Butterball Turkey organization even has a hotline for Thanksgiving emergencies. Speaking of sides, when two families are blended by matrimony or civil union, invariably there is side-taking on what makes up the appropriate method of vegetable preparation. Baked, boiled, canned, or marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes? Hubbard, acorn, or butternut squash? My very first Thanksgiving with my spouse’s family shocked me when they served broccoli with dinner. Broccoli? Green vegetables in this most monochromatic of meals? It gave me pause, I’ll admit. Turnip has become a contentious issue in my own celebration. I ask: why? My spouse answers: why not? Does anyone ever really eat the stuff? It’s, gasp, tradition! Cue Tevye.
Our simplest holiday — no presents, no cards, no extreme spending — is also the symbolic reenactment of the most basic activity of human society: eating around the fire, safe for the night. If Thanksgiving was officially legislated in 1941 (yes, 1941), it had already been observed for eons every time family members returned from journeys, harvests were successful, daughters were married off, wars were ended; life, for the moment, was good. We all know about the Pilgrims and their somewhat apocryphal feel-good celebration, but it wasn’t until Lincoln set aside the fourth Thursday (without benefit of legislation) that the day became part of the fabric of the country. But oh how that original concept has mutated.
Thanksgiving has become the holy day of Macy’s balloon, marching band, and lip-synching celebrity-filled parade. Even more, it is the day when football fans gorge on rivalries and argue their spouses into serving dinner so early they can’t interfere with the televised proceedings. I’m absolutely certain that Abraham Lincoln had that in mind when he set aside the day for thanks and prayerful contemplation. He was a big Bears fan.
Possibly the worst new development attendant upon this essential feast day is now the advent of “black Friday.” Someone, somewhere, called the Friday after Thanksgiving Black Friday and the name stuck like a burr. I have no idea if the accidental coinage meant that those poor unfortunates who feel it necessary to start Christmas shopping on that day like it was some sort of starting gate are afraid of it, or that it means shopkeepers (real and Internet) look to that day to save them from being in the red. Probably both. In any event, it sometimes appears as though Thanksgiving was something to be gotten through in order to get to the main event, whether it’s football or Target.
As a writer, I could use the holiday in any number of ways, e.g. bringing the sentimental weight of it to characters, giving them a setting and scenario that might push a story forward, or end it. Or, I could do a journey story, characters striving to reach home in time to be with family. A dining table is one of the purest settings for conflict and/or the surprise announcement bound to twist the plot, second only to a funeral reception. Our all-time favorite movie is “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” and we rarely fail to watch it on this upcoming weekend. It is the sweet story of two disparate characters, John Candy’s Del Griffith, and Steve Martin’s Neil Page, forced by circumstance into partnership and the struggle not only to get home, but to find home. If I had any desire to be a screenwriter, I’d wish that I had written that one.
So, in honor of Thanksgiving 2011, I list, in no particular order, those things for which I am thankful:
Family, friends, health, living where I do, doing what I do. What? You were expecting something unique? Thanksgiving brings out the gratitude, and, unsurprisingly, it’s pretty much the same for all of us. Happy Thanksgiving.