Thanksgiving as Harvest Feast

PAINTING DETAILMost Americans know the semi-mythological story of the first Thanksgiving, how the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony after a successful harvest in 1621 shared a meal with members of the Patuxet People of the Wampanoag tribe who had helped them plant their crops. But what we may not realize is that they were both acting out long-standing cultural traditions. The harvest festival, although it is celebrated at different times of the year and with different foodstuffs, is something found in every culture around the world.

The English settlers probably brought with them memories of the Michaelmas feast (September 29), the harvest festival on the English holiday calendar, a time to return home to eat together. The Wampanoag tribe had their own harvest festivals which coincided with the appearance of green corn and the arrival of certain fish species. In many African countries, the harvest festival, Odiwera, occurs at the time of the yam harvest. In Ireland, the first potatoes. In Hungary and Italy and Argentina, the grapes. In Papua, New Guinea, the pigs. In Bali, the rice. Everywhere, the festival usually involves a lavish meal, dancing, drinking, and ceremonies expressing gratitude to those (the gods or the farmers) who provided the food.

I am sometime annoyed by the insistence on recreating the ideal big family experience that accompanies Thanksgiving, an experience that is elusive but even in sitcoms, always triumphs over the forces of dysfunction arrayed against it. But I am ever so grateful that we have one holiday on the American holiday calendar that has not been co-opted by consumerism, that gathers us around a table to celebrate the food we’ve raised and cooked and shared with those we love.

This blog post first appeared at the Amber Lotus website, as part of a commissioned series of weekly posts on holiday lore.

The painting is called “The First Thanksgiving” and it’s by Jennie Brownscombe. I think it nicely illustrates the semi-mythological nature of the first Thanksgiving.

 

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Thanksgiving Grinch Ungrinched

I am not a Christmas Grinch (though it would be easy to be one). Long ago I learned how to deal with the pressures of Yule, which I should write about it another blog entry. But I did not realize how many negative feelings I had about Thanksgiving until this year when it burst out of me in a rant.

I was grateful to learn that others felt the same way, and have developed their own methods of coping. Havi, for instance, replaces the gratitude list with a lentil list of things that don’t stuck, and I was totally thrilled to appear on this year’s list. Other folks, like Cairene, have now adopted this tradition (and I made her list too!).

Several people wrote to tell me how much they do enjoy Thanksgiving, for instance, because it’s the least commercial of all American holidays (so true!) or because they are grateful to be with family and friends. But this only made me feel more Grinchy. Then, this week, I got some insights that helped my Grinchy heart grow several sizes.

It started with a good session with my counselor, in which I clarified my longings around Thanksgiving, and was followed by the serendipitous arrival of a newsletter about NVC (Non-Violent Communication). In the newsletter, Evan Gorsline wrote about his negative reaction to the word “happy.” He experienced it as a judgment, a way that he was expected to feel, and it was often used to describe a false optimism that repressed other more complex feelings. What Evan longed for in relationship with others was authenticity and honesty and the felt demand to be “happy” often prevented that.

What I long for at Thanksgiving (or any dinner party) is meaningful, challenging and playful conversation (something sorely lacking at my family’s Thanksgiving feasts where we were expected to focus on “happy” topics and something difficult to achieve in a group of strangers) and delicious food (and I really don’t like turkey). No wonder I was having trouble with Thanksgiving.

Having identified what I do want, I can set up about getting it next Thanksgiving. Just like when I took charge of my birthday parties, after years of being disappointed, and they suddenly became fabulous, because, after all, I am very good at knowing what I like. But the good news is that good conversation and good food can be enjoyed all year around, not just at Thanksgiving.

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