December 2, 2014

DAVIS | The Death of Thanksgiving

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By ADAM DAVIS

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is an excuse to eat gluttonously, get together with extended family and sit around watching football all day (at least two of which are hardly exclusive to one day for a good deal of us). But behind the mounds of leftovers, catching up with long-lost relatives, and shouting at the television, there is a story — or rather, a national myth — behind Thanksgiving.

This myth is one that was (and presumably still is) drilled into the heads of American elementary school students every November. It essentially boils down to two main themes: Generosity to strangers, and gratefulness for what you already have in life. The former was taught through stories of a time when European colonists took a break from their genocide of the natives, and Native Americans took a break from their violent resistance to colonialism so that the two groups could share a meal; the latter was taught through projects commanding us to brainstorm the good things in our lives for display on classroom bulletin boards. Even if some might question the extent to which these ideals truly reflect the origins of the holiday, or the extent to which they reflect American values in general, they seem to be fine ideals to aspire to at the very least.

Unfortunately, we seem to be losing our ability to do so. Anti-immigration sentiment had already been running high in the lead up to the Thanksgiving holiday. But on the Friday before Thanksgiving, this sentiment permeated the holiday spirit when the Indianapolis Star published a political cartoon by cartoonist Gary Varvel. The cartoon depicts a typical, middleclass-looking white family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, while a Hispanic-looking family comes crawling through their window. The white dad, with a less-than-happy look on his face, explains that, “Thanks to the President’s immigration order, we’ll be having extra guests this Thanksgiving.” The cartoon, which was pulled after a backlash for its racist overtones, seems almost unbelievably ignorant of its own irony: That newcomers to America should be denied hospitality on a day that celebrates the hospitality shown toward another group of newcomers to America centuries earlier. Even if this was just one cartoon, it is emblematic of an unfortunately widespread spirit which ran through the United States as we sat down for Thanksgiving dinner.

And if we Americans seemed unable to keep up a spirit of welcoming and generosity this Thanksgiving, we were even more unable to maintain the rejection of materialism which had come to characterize the holiday. With major retailers opening as early as eight in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, the elementary school idea of being happy with what you have, if only for one day, seems to have disappeared. In a piece for Jacobin, Guy Rundle writes of this encroachment of Black Friday on Thanksgiving that “The fact that this could even occur — that a sales event could wholly encroach on a collective holiday that lies at the root of national identity — is a measure of how decayed and compromised that identity has become.” Indeed, when a day meant for “giving thanks” devolves into a day for chasing steep discounts at retail chains (whose low wage workers are left out of the Thanksgiving merriment), one wonders just what is left of that holiday.

Sure, Thanksgiving is just one day out of 365 on the calendar. But the holiday is, as the excerpt from Rundle suggests, “at the root of national identity.” It is free from the religious affiliation of Christmas, or the explicit patriotism of Independence Day. It thus reflects the ideals that we strive toward as a nation: generosity and a rejection of materialism. While it is clear that our nation has failed to live up to these ideals for a while — if we ever did — the fact is that we are no longer able to live up to them for even one day out of the year. Perhaps a time when we are unable to adhere to the ideals at the heart of our national myth for 24 hours is a time for some national reflection.

Adam Davis is a freshman in the School of Industrial and Labor relations. He may be reached at adavis@cornellsun.com.

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