As an English-language teacher, I’ve grown accustomed to receiving unusual questions about America from my Russian students. Is McDonald’s the most popular restaurant in the U.S.? No, Svetlana. Actually, according to the American Customer Service Index, McDonald’s is less popular than Pizza Hut, Subway and even Burger King. What do Americans think of Russia? Do they believe we all have a pet brown bear and a vodka-based diet? Not to my knowledge, Kirill, but a formal survey has not been conducted. Today, Andrei came up with the most confounding question to date:
“I have heard that Thanksgiving is celebrated to thank the turkey for saving Americans from the Indians―is this true?”
“Ah…well, the turkey―I mean, the Native Americans didn’t…” I paused, attempting to break down my answer. While I was certain that no great turkey-hero had saved the early Puritan colony, it had been quite a long time since I last heard a history lecture on the subject. I could at least recall that the tradition had begun with a simple harvest festival in the 1620s, held by pilgrim settlers in Massachusetts. Andrei was unsatisfied with this answer, as it involved neither turkeys nor Native Americans. Why a turkey? He asked again. On the spot, my best answer was that wild turkeys are native to Massachusetts, and therefore likely to end up on a pilgrim dinner-plate. The Native American involvement (while certainly not sinister) was fuzzy in my memory. Not eager to misinform a student and start new Thanksgiving rumors in Moscow, I told Andrei that I would do a little research, and send him something to read on the subject as homework.
The question had taken me by surprise, more so than Big Macs or brown bears. Perhaps it was bewildering because of its familiarity and simplicity: Thanksgiving is turkey, siblings and stuffing. Thanksgiving is cranberry sauce, green-bean casserole and a waddle around the block after the meal. Thanksgiving is damp and sandy hiking boots, clouds on the rim and a fire snapping and cracking. For me, Thanksgiving day is in Moab. But this definition of the holiday is my own personal rendition; no two families are alike. When Andrei asked for a definition of Thanksgiving, he meant a general, Merriam-Webster type description. I hadn’t known how to explain to him my Thanksgiving.
The question of ‘the true meaning of Thanksgiving’ was thrown into sharp relief for another reason: This year was the first in a decade when I wouldn’t be in Moab. While I tried to focus on the food and company, I couldn’t help returning to the idea that the day would not be the same without the backdrop. Andrei’s seemingly innocuous question brought this thought to the surface once again.
Later that day, on a return from a hike, my sister and I were discussing the Thanksgiving menu: She has taken over pie-duty, and delegated green-bean casserole assembly to me. Perhaps we’ll go for a hike while the turkey’s in the oven, like we’d do in Moab, we agreed. The conversation lulled into silence as I began to dwell on missing a Moab Thanksgiving. Suddenly my train of thought was broken as my sister remarked,
“Y’know, we’re pretty lucky.”
“Lucky?” I asked, not sure if pie was still the topic of conversation.
“Yeah. Lucky. We like spending time together. All of us, I mean―as a family. That’s lucky,” she concluded. In a word, my sister had defined our Thanksgiving: we are lucky in Moab, lucky in Colorado. We are lucky to be together.
So to answer your question, Andrei, Thanksgiving is a harvest feast, meant to commemorate the original meal shared between the Wampanoag Indians and Plymouth colonists. In all likelihood there was no turkey at all (perhaps a plump goose, instead). This is only part one of the definition, though. Thanksgiving is also what each family creates. It is tradition, whatever (and wherever) that may be. And though at first we may see changes in our traditions as nothing short of blasphemy, our table will continue to evolve. This is our Thanksgiving.