The Thanksgiving Narrative

The original Thanksgiving narrative is a semi-true tale about a harvest festival between American colonists and native Americans in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Reportedly, there was no pumpkin pie, only boiled pumpkin. Meh. The narrative usually stops there, leaving out subsequent massacres and wars.

Anyway, the key storyline was about different people and cultures coming together to celebrate a successful harvest. So that’s the original mythological narrative, the basis for the national holiday. second narrative is the modern notion of Thanksgiving, what I’d call the “Rockwell Narrative”: the idealized version of the modern American Thanksgiving dinner: a big happy family, together around a perfectly-set table, smiling as they prepare to devour a massive roast turkey. Gone is the original idea of different cultures and groups coming together; Rockwell’s Thanksgiving is private.

This iconic 1943 image provides the idea of Thanksgiving that advertisers, greeting card companies, and supermarkets want us to try and recreate (with their help). The narrative of the modern Thanksgiving is the celebration of family and abundance.

Growing up, this tidy, white-tablecloth vision of Thanksgiving drove a lot of frenzied preparations in our house: carefully aligning placesettings, using silver utensils, dusting off the China gravy boat, rushing out to various supermarkets, hunting for the “right” rolls to serve in a big, napkin-lined basket. When I’d elbow my way through the crowds at on Thanksgiving morning at Ralphs and Vons, I was one of countless Americans caught up in the annual, frenzied push to recreate Rockwell’s idea of the perfect family meal.

Today, Thanksgiving seems to have evolved to a more indivialized storyline. For many, it’s about “homecoming,” braving the airports, the Interstates, or turnpikes to make it back home for a holiday. For some, the Thanksgiving story is about eating, watching football, and drifting into comatose state. For others, it’s about a less glamorized idea of family: hoping to simply get along and avoid conflict (countless movies and sit-coms dramatize this side of the holiday).

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Passover narrative, and how my take on it has shifted over the years. Thanksgiving shares a lot with Passover: appreciation for one’s history, gratitude for collective good fortune, and a very big meal.

Compared to the mega-commercialization of Christmas, Thanksgiving still seems relatively unspoiled. The basic narrative remains intact: once a year, we try to slow down and celebrate our good fortune with others.

Considering all the other messages we get in our culture, that’s not a bad story to tell.

The Passover Narrative

Growing up half-Catholic, half-Jewish and about 90% agnostic, I didn’t really grow up in a particularly religious home. We celebrated four big holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, and Easter — but none of them very seriously. Christmas and Hanukkah were about trees, candles, and presents; Easter was about a basket of candy; Passover was a dinner with a lot of pre-meal reading.

Passover tells stories of how the Jews escaped slavery, struggled, then found their way to Israel. As a kid, I understood this was a good and important story, to be sure, but it wasn’t the most relevant thing in the mind of a pre-teen boy.

For most years since I’ve been an adult, I didn’t observe Passover at all. But last week, my wife and I joined some friends for a Passover seder on our block. Unlike the hagaddah (for the gentiles in the house: that’s the book you read from during the meal) from my childhood, we used a more modern version by someone called the Velveteen Rabbi. Maybe it’s this version of the readings, or maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s all my recent study of narrative and storytelling, but I saw the whole idea of Passover in a new light.

The entire meal is a narrative, with symbolic gestures that go along with the story. You eat horseradish to remember the bitter times. You dip parsley in saltwater to remember the tears of suffering. You eat matzoh to recall that Jews had often had to eat on the move. Like Thanksgiving to Americans, Passover is about taking one night to remember the power of perseverance and appreciate good fortune.

I love this passage about the story of Moses:

God spoke to him from a burning bush, which though it flamed was not consumed. The Voice called him to lead the Hebrew people to freedom. Moses argued with God, pleading inadequacy, but God disagreed. Sometimes our responsibilities choose us

The story is about Moses, but who can’t relate to the idea of taking on challenges we don’t want?

And then there’s this section, which explores the idea of slavery beyond the literal reference of the history of the jews, suggesting that in modern times, we often enslave ourselves:

“Avadim hayinu; ata b’nei chorin. We were slaves, but now we are free.” Is this true? Though we no longer labor under Pharaoh’s overseers, we may still be enslaved—now in subtler ways, harder to eradicate. Do we enslave ourselves to our jobs? To our expectations? To the expectations of others? To our fears?

Tonight we celebrate our liberation from Egypt—in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, literally “the narrow place.” But narrow places exist in more ways than one. Let this holiday make us mindful of internal bondage which, despite outward freedom, keeps us enslaved.

This year, let our celebration of Passover stir us to shake off these chains. Our liberation is in our own hands.

It’s taken me a few decades of experience to have a better idea what the holiday is all about. It’s not just old stories of where our people came from; it’s recognizing history in order to better see the world and our life more clearly. Like a good book or a fine piece of writing, the narrative brings with it multiple meanings and interpretations. Sometimes you just have to look at it with a fresh eye.

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.