Holidays exist for a variety of reasons. Religious traditions. Marking the occasion of a battle won. Even commemorating an event of historic and/or mythic proportion. However, in my experience, the reasons for the holidays are not usually reflected in the ceremonies themselves. The resurrection of Christ? Let’s dye eggs and hide them all over the yard. All the snakes being driven from Ireland? Let’s get fall down sloppy drunk. The 4th of July does have fireworks, ostensibly to remind us of “the rocket’s red glare”… but the greater tradition seems to have become the first big barbecue of summer. Similarly… and frankly to a much more disgusting extent… Thanksgiving is the one holiday that, more than any other, represents the grand American custom of over-consumption.
Whatever your political or historical understanding of the origins of the holiday, chances are that your celebration this weekend will closely resemble the one replicating itself all across this great land of ours. Friends and family will travel… often great distances… to congregate and spend time with loved ones who we wouldn’t visit if it weren’t for the excuse or the expectations of tradition. (How often do we need to hear that it’s “the busiest travel day of the year?”) The effort these journeys require therefore only seems to raise the bar for the magnitude of the feast itself. A disproportionate amount of time and money is devoted to the preparation of this one meal. Its scale and expansiveness must elicit awe even from the most overfed of us. So we start by seeking out the largest bird we can find/carry, cleaning out its innards and then filling it to capacity with delicious, starchy goodness. (I find the concept of “stuffin’” itself a specifically American phenomenon.) Then we prepare a myriad of side dishes, also mostly of the starchy variety. And after we’ve sated ourselves with seconds and thirds to an almost competitive extent, the host of the event then asks “who’s saved room for pie?” The rest of the day will usually be a blur, drifting in and out of a tryptophan-induced malaise.
Now before I make it seem as though I’m above all of this dysfunction, I must confess to being guilty as charged on all counts of the above ritual. But having spent the better part of the past year developing and producing a series about food addiction, I can’t help but look at our culture and ask myself “why?” What is it about American culture that seems to institutionalize gluttony? The holidays, beginning with Thanksgiving, seems to be an understood period of complete wretched excess, culminating with the drunken revelry of New Years Eve, which in turn leads to the inevitable New Years resolutions, with curtailing such over-indulgence topping most of our lists. We are an ambivalent people, wanting the right and the ability to take giant leaps away from responsibility until we’re confronted with the price such living exacts. And that’s just on a personal level. I believe many of us are also conflicted about enjoying such sybaritic pleasures in the face of famine and tragedy, even in our own backyard. Most Americans I know do truly care about the plight we see all around us. I think we are a good hearted people, even if we often do proceed with blinders through our lives. So maybe the one aspect of this annual ceremony on which we should better reflect is the giving of thanks. If you are like me, you will be sitting down to a fuller table than most people in the world will ever see. If that’s the case, perhaps we should use the day to discuss, explore and commit to sharing some of this tremendous bounty with which we are so blessed. If we could find a way, wouldn’t it be wonderful to allow more people to share in the experience of having something for which to give thanks… and wouldn’t that leave us all feeling fuller in a truer sense? Just food for thought.