By Tommy Housworth, contributor
All this food looks and smells so good
But I can hardly taste it
The sense of something has been lost
There’s no way to replace it
“Thanksgiving” by Loudon Wainwright lll
I got my first 2019 Starbucks holiday cup the first week of November and I gotta say, dammit, I’m really offended by it.
It’s not because it doesn’t feature a nativity scene with the steps to salvation printed on the sleeve. No, I’m fine with all that. What bugs me is the fact that I’d barely peeled off my Halloween makeup before this cardboard tumbler, with all its yuletide iconography, was handed to me by my friendly neighborhood barista.
I should mention, as I drove home, Christmas wreaths were being placed on lampposts. Of course, November 1st is late in the game by some standards. Drop by your neighborhood Target or Walmart, where Halloween costumes were being crowded out by Christmas displays midway through October. And Christmas ads? They’ve been trickling onto our screens for a few weeks now.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. But I’ve never thought the fabricated “War” on Christmas was propagated by atheists or multiculturalists, but by Madison Avenue and Wall Street. Christmas, it seems, is no longer a time for peace, communion, and gratitude, but for chaos, noise, and greed. And what holiday has gotten gobbled up in the crossfire like so much sliced turkey? You guessed it: Thanksgiving.
I readily admit that Thanksgiving comes with its own dark shadow. Many Americans are now willing to acknowledge that it was the beginning of the end for Native Americans living and thriving in the country. In fact, like everything else, the Pilgrims even swiped Thanksgiving from the Native Americans. The original Wampanoag feast was called Nikkomosachmiawene (or “Grand Sachem’s Council Feast”). In 1621, the Wampanoag amassed their food to help the Pilgrims. This is what European settlers came to know as “Thanksgiving Day.” Soon thereafter, settlers fought the Natives on their land, forced them to abandon their beliefs, or outright killed them. Many Native Americans consider Thanksgiving to be a National Day of Mourning. Not trying to piss in your cranberry sauce, it’s just the tragic downside to yet another cheery American tradition.
But I’m not here to declare a War on Thanksgiving myself. I’m still appreciative of the notion that we have set aside a day for that oft neglected virtue of Gratitude. Gratitude to your deity of choice, to family, to community, to neighbor and friend, to nature. Pick your recipient, gratitude is hardly ever misguided.
Of course, I grew up in a home where Thanksgiving meant a big meal and family time. As I was growing up, even the now-traditional slate of football games was not part of the architecture. In fact, after a second plate of sweet potatoes and dressing, all one could do was sit and be present with other loved ones, as we all awaited the oncoming carbs coma and then, inevitably, leftovers for dinner.
“Thanksgiving,” a song written by Loudon Wainwright lll and included on his 1989 album, Therapy, goes beyond the conflicting feelings many of us have about the holiday. Wainwright is tuned into each and every unpleasant thought going through our heads as we absorb the bounty. The family is together but is every member of the family happy about it? And if all the food before us is so good, why do we eat like this only one or two days a year? And is there something said that reminds you of an old unsettled grudge?
I look around and recognize
A sister and a brother
We rarely see our parents now
We hardly see each other
On this auspicious occasion
This special family dinner
If I argue with a loved one, Lord
Please make me… The winner
Wainwright’s Therapy album was released in 1989. He was 43 at the time and cognizant of the importance of being nice in the situations he presents in “Thanksgiving.” Maybe slipping off for a nap after the dinner or sitting in front of a football game can keep the family from revisiting “that bad old feeling.” After all, this is the beginning of the holiday season. We should be of good cheer.
But in 1989, life doesn’t deliver on the promise of the ’60s. And one slips into thinking that things can only get worse. And if you’ve been paying attention, especially over the last 2-3 years, you know things have gotten worse than you ever anticipated. One mulls over that while enumerating what we’re all actually thankful for.
As the decades folded in on themselves and we stepped into the 21st century, Christmas began to knock a little more loudly on Thanksgiving’s door, until it had let itself in, taken over the head of the table, and started complaining about what was being served. Christmas – it seemed – had become the Peppermint Patty to Thanksgiving’s Charlie Brown. But rather than backing off after a thoughtful monologue from the steadfastly stoic Linus, Christmas didn’t get the message.
Thanksgiving is now eclipsed by the omnipresence of Black Friday, an aptly named day when Americans prove that they’ll buy anything if it’s on sale. Seriously, anything. And some stores apparently won’t offer refunds on those combination flat screen TV/recliner/exfoliating foot pad consoles.
Trouble was, Black Friday wasn’t good enough. People started camping out for sales on Thursday night. So, retail stores, never ones to risk letting a competitor get a perceived edge, started opening earlier and earlier on Friday morning, until it was Thursday night, until it was Thursday afternoon, until why bother even closing for Thanksgiving? All this in the name of making sure that the Christmas stockings are full of gadgets and gizmos that will be obsolete before the leftovers from the Feast of St. Stephen have spoiled.
Now, to be fair, a wondrous pushback has taken place the past few years, as many Americans have refused to shop Black Friday, or at least darken any participating store’s doors on Thanksgiving Day. There are online petitions and the alternate movements of Cyber Monday and Small Business Saturday. It’s still consumerism, but at least it’s more thoughtful consumerism.
Look at it this way: this year, you’ll have 27 glorious days between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas morning, and that’s if you ignore the days leading up to the Epiphany. That’s ample time to make your list, check in with Santa, celebrate Advent, revisit the story of a promised messiah born in Bethlehem, string lights, decorate a tree, watch Rudolph, sing some carols, hang a stocking, torment your child with a creepy, voyeuristic elf on the shelf, and cruise through a drive-thru nativity.
So, this year, let’s give Thanksgiving a little breathing room, some space to unbuckle its belt a notch and appreciate the feast of gratitude that is our lives. As a nation, we need to.
Times are strange. We are, most would agree, more divided than anytime in our recollection. We are also more disconnected: faces in phones, minds in disrepair, hearts in retreat.
Thanksgiving season is the perfect time to reflect and realign with those things that make us grateful.
It’s the kind word you weren’t expecting, the gentle gesture you found the courage to offer, the right song at the right time, an unexpected laugh, an unguarded moment with a friend, the joy of silence and solitude, the community that reinforces your faith in whomever or whatever you find holy.
And now that I think about it, it’s also a warm cup of coffee, served on November 1st, in a Starbucks cup covered in Christmas imagery.
Because if we change our perspective, we can even be grateful for the things that start rants like this one. It was, after all, a really good cup of coffee.