Why Thanksgiving Is My Favorite Holiday

A reflection on such a community-oriented holiday, and why I love it, even minus the community in 2020 due to the pandemic.

A 2020 thanksgiving table setting, complete with autumnal placemats, colorful gourds, pine cones, and masks.

2020 has been quite a year. Words hardly do justice to the range of events that have pummeled our human shores, like waves crashing again and again on the beach. I won’t be able to list everything here; besides, there are innumerable personal tragedies, alongside the national and global ones, that have etched themselves into our lives that I simply don’t know about.

To be concise: over 250,000 Americans dead; more than 125 million cases worldwide; rising unemployment; rising incidences of hate crimes; the continued murders, sometimes captured on-screen, of Black and Brown men and women that underline in bold, bloody print how much we have yet to do in terms of race in the United States (and globally) and displays a callous disregard for human life. And maybe that’s what makes it all really hurt: the callous manner in which systems and people fail us, each other, ourselves.

So why is it that Thanksgiving remains, and will always remain, my favorite holiday of the year? For starters, what’s not to love about a big meal. But if Thanksgiving traditions didn’t involve food at all I still think I would love it. And this year Thanksgiving is looking especially different, with government and media alike discouraging travel, encouraging small gatherings, and advising for no intermingled house gatherings at all really.

I must acknowledge when writing about Thanksgiving, the myth of its feel-good-pilgrims-and-Native-Americans-coming-together origin, which has been widely debunked. Furthermore, it’s clear to me that we as a collective society in the U.S. have failed to come to terms with our historical actions, both intentional and not, toward Indigenous and Native Americans.

Though my forebears weren’t present in the United States to inflict that damage, I still bear, as we all do, the collective burden of our cultural history. I want to address that and to say that those thoughts are not far from my mind when I think about Thanksgiving and what it means to me. My love for Thanksgiving has nothing to do with those colonial, imperialistic, racist origins, but it cannot be separated from them, and that’s okay. Things, as you all doubtlessly know, are complicated.

A thanksgiving place setting with wine and decorative pumpkins

Personal Thanksgivings

Even now, with Thanksgiving looking a little different perhaps for a lot of people and cases of COVID-19 soaring across the globe, I still feel drawn to Thanksgiving. For this week’s blog, I’m asking myself why Thanksgiving remains a personal favorite holiday, despite the holiday hardly ever going smoothly for my family.

The first Thanksgiving to go awry happened before I can remember; I was in the hospital, as a wee baby, with a bad case of croup. My family canceled any hopes of cooking the classic turkey meal because of my hospital stay. We opted instead for Whole Foods’ yearly Thanksgiving meal kits, pre-made food that we could pick up ahead of time and just reheat. For years this became my family’s Thanksgiving tradition; my brother and I even got in the habit of making requests for certain extras (I’m a stuffing guy, and my brother is all in on mashed potatoes).

a family serves Thanksgiving

Five years ago, my grandfather died on November 13th. His funeral was the following week, aka the week before Thanksgiving. My four-person immediate family always does a private Thanksgiving, no big gatherings, no “drunk uncles” or strange cousins (not that I have any of either), no visits to friends’ houses. But to have my grandfather, my mother’s father, and my grandmother’s husband of over 30 years, die on the cusp of a holiday all about gratitude and gratefulness was challenging, to say the least.

My grandpa was just a good man; I know that seems too easy to say, or that everyone says that about the dead, but it’s really true in this case. He talked and chatted and became friends with everyone he met, and I mean literally everyone; on his days off from being a high school principal (he began his education career as the school’s assistant football coach) he washed cars and took walks with a homeless man he befriended. He taught me, and countless others, lessons about resilience, doing things the right way, and not just the easy way, and about treating people honestly, decently, respectfully.

But still, Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. I’m not sure if it is despite his death, or maybe because of it somehow, but I have grown to love this holiday, even more, *shrugs*. Each year brings new arguments between either my brother and me, my father and I or my brother and my father. My mom mediates as best as she can, but often to no avail. We’ve had shouting matches during Thanksgiving, as I’m sure many families have, and we’ve had awkward and angry silences, as I’m sure many families have. And yet I still look forward to this holiday every year. The lore in my family (every family has a mythology all its own) is that my dad’s father, my other grandfather, arrived in the United States on Thanksgiving day, 1948, with his brother after surviving the Holocaust. The history of my family pulls me toward Thanksgiving.

A medical mask resting on fallen autumn leaves.

A Pandemic Thanksgiving

On November 3rd, my housemates and I were unfortunately exposed to COVID-19; we all went into isolation and quarantine from each other and relegated the infected individual to his own room (he has since gotten better). Thankfully, we have enough space and individual rooms that this was feasible.

After a few days, a lot of worrying, and some preliminary negative tests (thank you county of LA for free Covid-19 testing!) my parents in the Bay Area wanted me to come up and stay with them in their basement (which has a pull-out sofa-bed). I would continue my quarantine away from them, and in the event that I did in fact have covid-19, would spend Thanksgiving down in the basement, a plate of food left at my door.

My parents made clear that if this comes to pass, we’d simply push Thanksgiving back a week or two, and celebrate informally or with some leftovers then. I guess that’s what it’s all about: a certain amount of flexibility, resilience, knowing that someday, at some point, you will find yourself among good company. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, and it may not be during actual Thanksgiving, but there will be a moment, probably many moments, in which we can once again bask in the company of those we love, and who love us.

A family waves at someone on FaceTime on a phone, observing a safe Thanksgiving

Wrappin ‘ It Up

As I said at the beginning of this blog post, Thanksgiving will look a bit different this year. I don’t have that many concrete tips to offer, except maybe: wear a mask, keep your distance, be respectful of others, be conscientious, cut folks some slack.

The myth of Thanksgiving is bogus, truly. The individual traditions and rituals that have arisen out of that myth are what we need to cling to. There’s, apparently, an old Italian saying that I came across online, as one does, a few years ago: ‘A tavola non s’invencchia,’ which translates to ‘around the table one does not grow old.’ Even beyond my Italian heritage, I quite like that saying; it speaks to Thanksgiving, but really any moment where we gather with friends and family to commemorate, commiserate, celebrate, and converse.

Part of why we don’t grow old around the table is because of the company we keep, and during a different kind of Thanksgiving this year and perhaps for the future, remember that you’re not losing time, you’re simply biding it, waiting for the chance to join hands and give thanks again.

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