That most heartstring-tugging of holidays. Union Station was a crowded, stressed-out mess, but the grouchy woman who handed me my Amtrak ticket still told me to have a wonderful holiday, like the metro announcer who announced “Doors left side, have a good holiday,” like the Amtrak conductor who told us to get off the train and have a happy Thanksgiving. As I was standing at the train station in Princeton, NJ, marveling at how much colder where I ended up was that where I started, people around me were waving madly at cars and saying things like, “Can you hold the pie?” and hugging each other in thankful surprise.
Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday – in concept, at least. It’s a strange holiday – there’s no real reason for it, no overarching dictum, nothing to commemorate. There’s not religion attached to Thanksgiving except the simplest – you have to go home.
No matter who you are, where you are, what you are doing or how important you think it is, the entire country is mandated to shut down for four and a half days in late November to celebrate the colors of fall, our ability to pay for, cook, and eat lots of food, and the fact that we have family to come home to. Whatever “home” may be, wherever the people who make up your particular version of “family” are at this moment – that is where you go. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because that is all it celebrates. There is no greater historical significance, no event to commemorate. Sure, in kindergarten we are taught about pilgrims and Indians and things, but thats just an excuse for songs and for the gym teacher to dress up like a turkey. Thanksgiving is never really about that.
My boyfriend took a theology class called “Feast of Fools” (heh) that was all about how holidays in medieval times existed to give structure and meaning to time as it passes through people’s lives. I’ve always liked this. It makes Christmas easier to swallow, for one thing. Christmas (and Hannukah, and any other candle-centric winter holiday) can be about how it is very dark, and cold, and that, someday, there will be light again. As the last couplet of a poem I memorized in fourth grade put it, “I heard a bird sing in the dark of December/we are nearer to spring than we were in September.”
Thanksgiving has some of the trappings of Christmas – warmth, light, a glow to surround us as things get progressively colder – but without a religion or a specific point to inspire it, it becomes something even stranger, even stronger. It is a structured time, a moment on which to hang the rest of this year on. Thanksgiving becomes a noticeable gap in the steady stream of daily life, four days when the usual world shuts down. Nothing is expected of you then, except to be surprised at how big the baby is now, to ask questions about the locations of your relative’s lives, and, sometimes, to say what you are thankful for.
At my house, as I’m sure at your house, we have the same conversations every year, the same food, make some of the same jokes, rehash the same arguments. Someone volunteers to do all the dishes, and then complains about it. The house is always too hot. And then, a few years later, that house is gone, and someone else is cooking, doing dishes, complaining about the temperature, different people are asking the same questions, the journey home involves new stops, new starting points, new destinations. As the meanings of “home” and “family” change, Thanksgiving still means a return to those things that provide the most basic of human comforts – food, warmth, shelter, and love, and a reminder that time, while, ineffable and eternal, is always and only what we make it to be.
My cousin’s wife hugged me and my mom good-bye today. “We should do this again,” she said. “Well, that’s the thing about holidays,” my mom said. “They always come again.”