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Thankful for Thanksgiving

I’m not sure I’ve ever bought anything at Nordstrom’s in my life, and I’m not sure I ever will, but I have to say that I was more inclined to consider it than I can remember when I read their recent little statement about “celebrating one holiday at a time” and opting out of the great rush to Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving.

That’s partly because I enjoy the winter holiday season best when it’s confined in its proper bounds instead of spreading over a full sixth of the year as it seems bent on doing.

It’s also because I actually like Thanksgiving, entirely apart from being the gun that starts the rest of the hullabaloo (as I’ve noted before, I stick to advent for that, not for Catholic reasons particularly, but at least partly to give Thanksgiving a little space).

Thanksgiving has a hard time. It gets swallowed in plans for and expectations of the day after. Retail-wise, it only generates extra sales of food and turkey roasting pans and napkins. Because we have an expectation of “spending it with family,” it means many of us are trying to juggle the logistics of getting large families together twice in the space of a month, or divvying up “your folks Thanksgiving, mine Christmas/ Hanukkah” over and over and sometimes grousing about the one that sneaks up on us when we’re not ready for such things yet.

History-wise, many of us have, if not as many qualms as we do with Columbus Day, some definite problems with the way the stories are generally told. The idea of friendship and cooperation between peoples is great, if we didn’t know how disastrously and persistently one-sided it ended up being. I recently had to walk away from the “Story of the Mayflower” bonus track on Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving DVD for fear of pulling all my hair out over the references to “that vast empty land” and the like. Although the part where Puritans ran into Native Americans in the woods, and then when the latter ran away said “Huh, maybe we shouldn’t point our guns at them,” was funny in an “ouch” kind of way.

On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to recast Thanksgiving to a simple harvest and giving-thanks holiday. Certainly for legions of us who recast the winter holidays every year into secular celebrations of the season, innocence, overcoming fear, and returning light, stepping away from the grade-school Thanksgiving narrative is a piece of cake. It’s pretty wonderful, in fact, to have a secular national holiday that is even nominally as humble as Thanksgiving is, absent the rah-rah bluster of the Fourth of July or complicated issues about military involvement.

Seeing “gratitude” statements spread on social media in the days leading up to it has even given it a feeling of a season of its own that extends beyond the usual grocery shopping-cooking-traveling frenzy that started last weekend.

Being the tradition-fond person that I am, one of the small things I’ve grown thankful for over the past few years is the meal itself. It’s incredibly adaptable and inclusive. We’re going to have several people at our feast this year with impressive lists of allergies or foods they’re avoiding, and though there are certainly some changes that have to be made (dairy-free mashed potatoes, a gluten-free stuffing option) and some dishes that can’t be adapted, it’s surprisingly easy to have most things on the traditional roster be edible by most people.

Even for vegetarians, as long as you add in some sort of alternate protein source and have someone who knows how to make vegetarian gravy (admittedly, rarer than they should be), the very fact that the traditional meal has a huge number of substantial vegetable-based side dishes means it’s far more welcoming than, say, a traditional barbecue. (It’s true that I’ve kind of forgotten that lentil-spinach-feta casserole isn’t a traditional Thanksgiving dish. We kept it even when we went back to eating turkey.)

On top of all that (or perhaps related to it?), being based in the local cuisine of our area, it’s an incredibly easy meal to go “local” on if that’s something you have been working on.

It’s been a hard year for many of us, on many fronts. I think it’s a little too simplistic to tell people to “be grateful for the hard times because that’s when you grow,” even though it’s often true. Sometimes the proper response to hard times is something else—anger, grief, determination. But for myself, I am grateful for the seasonal reminder to be graciously grateful when it is warranted—whether for the greens that kept growing when I flaked out on watering and weeding them or the understanding support of a friend when facing a decision with no particularly good options.

Happy Thanksgiving.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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