Redefining Thanksgiving

By Lindsay Mensch

Most holidays or celebrations are centered around rituals of food. Weddings warrant giant white cakes, Easter includes ham and colorful hard-boiled eggs, and Halloween requires a copious amount of sweets. Perhaps more than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is centered around traditional foods and mealtime bonding. A golden turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie; the sheer number of foods we associate with a single Thursday in November is rather incredible. Our ritual for this day is also built on the act of eating this delicious food. We come together with loved ones to feast on the delicious dishes fattening the table, and share in the tradition of being thankful for the people and food surrounding us.

All of this sounds splendid – harmless, even. But I question Thanksgiving. I question its origins: the supposed union of natives and settlers at the beginning of white colonization and preceding the American Indian genocide. I question its historicity: an apparently glamourous feast of turkey and plentiful vegetables. I question its authenticity: it is followed by Black Friday, a day for the acquisition of consumer goods that defies the fundamental concept of being grateful for what we have. I question my loved ones: some of them share their bigoted thoughts over a dead bird, murdered for no purpose other than to satisfy their selfish tastes.

So what is Thanksgiving all about? Is it a lie? Is the spirit of Thanksgiving – being grateful for what we have, and being appreciative of the people, food, and world around us – still there, despite the racist, murderous, and hypocritical foundations of the holiday?

I like to think of a scene from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: Linus recites what was supposedly a prayer used by the pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving feast. It is a moment of thanks amongst the Peanuts’ cast. After saying grace, Snoopy doles out an unconventional meal – consisting of toast, pretzels, jelly beans, and popcorn – to everyone sitting around the table. Peppermint Patty react adversely: “What blockhead cooked all this?” she exclaims, taken aback. “Is this what you call a Thanksgiving Day dinner?”

It reminded me of a passage from Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer:

“See your loved ones around the table. Hear the sounds, smell the smells. There is no turkey. Is the holiday undermined? Is Thanksgiving no longer Thanksgiving? Or would Thanksgiving be enhanced? Would the choice not to eat turkey be a more active way of celebrating how thankful we feel?”

When we take the time to think about the food we eat, we make a conscious and informed choice about the morality of what’s on our plate. When we think about the ethics of Thanksgiving, its history, and our ways of celebrating, we can be informed about how we can celebrate better – in the true spirit of thankfulness and appreciation.

Later in the episode, Charlie Brown apologizes to Marcie about the food: “I just feel bad because I ruined everyone’s Thanksgiving.”

She replies, “But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck…. We should just be thankful for being together.”

As we look around us at today’s divisions between people of different cultures, races, sexualities, genders, abilities, classes, etc., this is the message we need more than ever. The gaps in our convictions about animal welfare and our practices of eating animals are more striking than ever before. Our nostalgia for a false past, and our erasure of the histories of people who have been “othered” becomes apparent to me during this holiday season.

That’s why I’m thankful for the differences that define us. That’s why I chose to not eat animals on this day, or any other day. That’s why I chose to find truths in the histories not often told in whitewashed textbooks.

That’s why I’m “thankful for being together.” To me, that’s what Thanksgiving is all about.

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