This year was my seventh Thanksgiving abroad, and I felt myself yearning for something I couldn’t quite grasp, something more than just sweet potato casserole and cranberry preserves. My husband, who is German, tries to comfort me every year by reminding me that Thanksgiving Day is just like any other day in November. I suppose NASA, at least, would agree.
Anthropological research demonstrates the role that holidays play in forming the values and reinforcing cultural norms in society, and in that sense, these special days do stand out with importance. Of course, holidays are cultural constructs that often gloss over the wider context of historical events that would, if considered, neutralize the meaning of the holiday itself. Although it sounds lame to admit, the real history behind the holiday isn’t the most important consideration. Clifford Geertz, the famous anthropologist, argued that cultural forms (holidays, flags, symbols) are artifacts a group uses in order to build a collective identity and cultural system. So although it’s unfortunate that Thanksgiving developed in the context of colonialism (which could be violent and predatory), this back history isn’t of functional importance in the consideration of how holidays impact entire societies. Primarily, what anthropologists are asking is: what values and concepts are expressed and reinforced during the celebration?
Thanksgiving’s greatest symbol is its food. While other holidays center on less edible symbols like Christmas trees, Diwali lamps, Ashura flags, or Easter eggs, Thanksgiving’s primary symbol is food – and lots of it. It symbolizes abundance and the security we feel in knowing that we have enough. Unlike the Islamic month of Ramadan, which juxtaposes periods of fasting and prayer with periods of feasting and rejoicing, Thanksgiving does not have ceremonial contrast between a sense of want and a sense of plenty. Celebrated indiscriminately, Thanksgiving can contribute towards the creation of a nation of naval-gazing consumerists (disclaimer: I critique as one who nevertheless claims Thanksgiving as my favorite holiday).
But and if holidays are cultural constructs which both express and shape collective values, celebrating intentionally can put us on the track of mastering life rather than being passively shaped by it. What if we asked ourselves during the holidays, What values are important to me? What values do I want to reinforce in my inner self? In my family?
Maybe you’d be interested in things like generosity. Community. Gratitude. Selfless giving. What if on Thanksgiving we made it a point to give to others? What if children grew up knowing that Thanksgiving was this exciting day every year when we stopped to ponder how much we really have in comparison to the rest of the world? What if we got so thrilled that we overflowed with gratitude and gushed some of our abundance on others less fortunate than us?
For my seventh Thanksgiving abroad, I decided that the most important value I want to associate with my favorite holiday is community. My husband’s family is in Germany, mine is in the US, and we don’t have children. Instead of family, I invited a group of American university students from the expat community to come over and eat with us, some of whom I barely knew. I spent two full days cooking, a labor of love to give a sense of home and well-being to kids who are studying far from their families. They all came, thrilled to see cranberry preserves and American-style rolls and pumpkin pies. We told stories and jokes about life in America and laughed until the muscles in my face ached.
I looked around the circle of laughing faces, glowing warm in the soft light of candles, and my heart filled to the brim. Thanksgiving can make us, or we can make Thanksgiving. It’s about intentionality and asking questions about why we do what we do, and what we want our cultural rituals to mean. I want Thanksgiving to mean generosity, gratitude, and community – not consumerism. As I poured myself into giving something to others, I felt myself repaid in full – paid in smiles, laughter, genuine human connection…repaid merely in knowing I had made them happy.
It’s a very small thing, but it illustrates my main thesis on this blog – people who are searching for a sense of meaning in life need to look outside themselves.
Oh, and Christmas is coming. It seems like it’s a great time to start asking yourself the intentionality questions! 😁🎄