Though Thanksgiving is rooted in real historical events, intentional misremembering of those events is a big part of our holiday observance. In his new documentary about the Pilgrims, Ric Burns rues the way we “forget almost everything actual about the Pilgrims when we sit down to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.” What we honor as authentic traditions are much more nineteenth-century inventions, an annual national tradition far from, even at odds with 1620s Plymouth. Tracy McKenzie argues that a regularized date undermines the particular gratitude embodied in those early Massachusetts feasts: “In [Pilgrims’] view, an annual Thanksgiving taught human conceit and divine predictability and could easily degenerate into a meaningless ritual that reduced God’s provision for human need to his creation of the crop cycle.” As McKenzie points out, “It is more than a little ironic, then, that modern Americans insist on linking our contemporary Thanksgiving tradition to the Pilgrims, for in paying them homage we also reject a central pillar of their world view.”
To get it right, we could struggle to understand better the beleaguered separatists who settled Plymouth, or we could drop reference to this origin story and just carve the bird. Instead, a kind of warm, vague affirmation of American roots, family roots, and root vegetables blends into enthusiasm for this day. It’s a civil holiday rather than a religious one. Carelessness about historical accuracy may be part of the reason for the patriotic holiday’s persistence, why it eludes the kind of critiques applied to Columbus Day or July 4th.
Eating is mostly the point of the day, with gratitude as motive and expression. Foods function symbolically—turkey and stuffing somehow linking us alike with the Pilgrims and with Aunt Gloria—but also themselves become the celebration, what we anticipate, relish, savor. The better to honor hoary Thanksgiving traditions, a new rule is appropriate. When cutlery is put to rest on a plate, no one should ask or be asked, “Are you still working on that?”
No, you are not “still working.” You were never working. That forkful on Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for goods your work is not sufficient to attain. Your eating constitutes recognition that someone grew, perhaps slaughtered, prepared, and presented what you put in your mouth. Someone respected what grew on the earth enough to figure out how to cook it well. Eating allows delight in that creation, in that effort of other people, in the astonishing fitness of creation that affords not only things to be eaten but a sensory apparatus to apprehend in nuances and gradations of texture, flavor, color, fragrance.
This might seem a small error of awkward speech. But the big mistake of that unfortunate current expression is highlighted by our Pilgrim-inspired feast. To call feasting work is to get the thing all wrong. The English migrants to Massachusetts brought an earnest work ethic along with a burning piety and a conviction about right governing order. Vigorous work can serve God and neighbor, do great good, but the feast and the Sabbath bring rest from work, highlight limits of work. Since this holiday in particular focuses us on food in some right ways—rejoicing in plenty, making mealtime as relational gathering, honoring tradition in observance—we should make this the day for a change of linguistic fashion.