Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:51:00 AM

Somehow someone’s gotten the idea lately that Thanksgiving is all about food. Well, no, not exactly. It’s the successor to a whole variety of traditional festivals going back at least to the Jewish Sukkot (sometimes transliterated as Succoth).  

Here’s how the “Judaism 101” website describes it: “Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the 40-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival…” 

The Pilgrim mothers and fathers, well-versed as they were in what Christians call the Old Testament, must have had similar ideas when they put together what schoolkids call The First Thanksgiving. The actual facts could be significantly different, but the myth of The First Thanksgiving is that European immigrants and American natives living in Plymouth Plantation threw a party to celebrate both the harvest and their mutual harmony in a safe environment, concepts clearly related to the dual message of Sukkot.  

One part of Sukkot is enjoying festive meals in a temporary shelter built outside for that purpose. Near the UC campus in recent years it’s been possible to see the one that the people at Chabad House have built on the corner of College and Derby. Sometimes these shelters, sukkahs, are charmingly decorated. The winemaker who lives on our family property in Santa Cruz commissioned my late mother-in-law, an artist, to do beautiful and elaborate murals on the walls of the sukkah he uses there for Sukkot celebrations with his observant community. 

Thanksgiving festivities have traditionally incorporated a similar decorative concept—the table is usually adorned with whatever the household can provide, everything from hand-drawn paper cutouts of turkeys to the family silver if any. The food on the table has represented the harvest, even in urban households where the harvest is gleaned mainly at the grocery store. The “standards”—turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie—are derived from the mythical Pilgrim feast, things thought to have been copiously available in Massachusetts in the 16th century. 

The idea that Thanksgiving’s primarily a family gathering seems related to the Sukkot tradition of celebrating shelter in a hostile environment. In California where many of us are from somewhere else, it’s become traditional to invite waifs and strays, those without local family, to join family tables, rather like filling an extra cup for the prophet Elijah at the Passover table. 

But the family reunion aspect of Thanksgiving takes its lumps in the chatty media. A fair percentage of our state’s population came here to escape their family, and these people view the event as a celebration of not having to put up any longer with any guests you didn’t personally select for their wit, charm, beauty or other desirable attributes. 

In the foodie subset of the Californian culture, Thanksgiving has become an opportunity for show-off cooking. It’s not just about sustenance or abundance any more—now it’s also about extravagance: demonstrating how very special your personal relationship is to what for others may be just food on the table. Turkey, pumpkin pie and cranberries are for amateurs, it seems. Why not instead quail stuffed with pate, kambocha squash soup, lingonberry tartes, washed down with several choice vintages?  

The old New England Puritans would have been horrified. They’re the ones who punished people for celebrating Christmas, viewing it as a pagan or perhaps even worse, a Roman Catholic holiday inseparably linked to debauchery. The foodie Thanksgiving, what’s viewed in some quarters as the year’s grandest dinner party, would have caused them to roll their eyes at least, if not throw all participants in the stocks forthwith.  

Plain or fancy, contemporary Thanksgiving tables are usually opportunities for committing what preachers of all stripes might denounce as the sin of gluttony. In the post-religious pockets of today’s society, it’s the number one deadly sin, far outstripping lust, the old champion which has almost disappeared from the roster of sins.  

Gluttony is most often ascribed to those who eat differently from oneself, especially those who sometimes indulge in cheap food, quintessentially at McDonald’s. But on Thanksgiving over-eating is culturally sanctioned, regardless of what’s actually consumed. 

There’s a monster dispute between those who think of Thanksgiving as an opportunity for consumption of large quantities of televised football and those who don’t. In the traditional households of the old Midwest, no problem: the women cooked, the men watched the games. Here, now, it’s a little more complicated. Fans, both men and women, feel compelled to just sneak a peek at the screen while also lending a hand with the potato peeling. If the timing of dinner is right, some manage to do both openly, but it’s not easy. 

When you think about it, cultural clashes mean that not much about the 21st Century California Thanksgiving is easy, unless of course you decide to make it so, which is the best course of action. One of its manifest virtues is that it’s quasi-religious while also being completely non-sectarian. It’s good to feel grateful, isn’t it, as long as you don’t have to define whom or what you’re grateful to. You can say grace before dinner, or not, depending on the custom of your people. It’s ideal if someone at the table can sing a traditional blessing for food in Hebrew, especially if most guests don’t understand the language, which prevents theological arguments. 

Whatever you decide to do for Thanksgiving, have fun doing it. If you don’t have a gathering to attend, join the volunteers at the many soup kitchens which need help with their meals.  

You can even enjoy having nothing to do. On our first Thanksgiving in frigid Michigan, where we knew no one and when we had no children, we spent the whole day in bed, keeping warm under the covers and catching up on our reading, and it was great.  

Myself, these days I don’t care what prayers you say or what food you bring to the table as long as you bring the kids. For me, Thanksgiving is the ideal opportunity to enjoy the latest additions to the next generation. This year, it’s a new grand-nephew to rejoice in, not to mention his bumptious 2-year-old brother, who seems to greet every new experience with enormous enthusiasm—a model for us all this Thanksgiving and every day.