A New Look at Thanksgiving: the strange ritual we pull off each year

It really is a strange ritual we pull off each year. We mean well, with this Thanksgiving of ours, but intention only carries so far.

The myth in full color

The Thanksgiving myth, you know, is a fiction. A nice fiction, a Norman Rockwell fiction, but fiction nonetheless.

Did our WASP ancestors eat with the locals way back when?  Probably, but not in the way we think. 

There is evidence (I’m told; not sure what it is) that settlers who came prior to the Mayflower (That would be the Vikings and perhaps even the Chinese) were met with friendliness and food. So I’ll not say it never happened.

But, since we’re talking about this AMERICAN holiday, our first Thanksgiving wasn’t until 1863 when, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln decided it’d be a good thing for national unity if we all came together (that means we all did the same thing) in thanksgiving once a year. I support that idea.

But late November? What were they thinking?

Lincoln was living in Washington DC at the time, where November is still harvest season. Up here in Vermont we’ve been pulling on our long johns and running the wood stove full time for the past month. Harvest season is long over. As is the case for Minnesota, Michigan, Maine … The list goes on. There are a lot of us up here in the north.

Speaking of harvest, the food at Thanksgiving is rather atrocious.

Traditional Thanksgiving fare.


Who orders turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy at a restaurant? You know why that is? Because we don’t like it that much.

The meat is generally dry, the mashed potatoes are bland, the dressing is greasy, and the gravy —- It’s just grease, flour and more grease; the liquid we add from the steamed vegetables doesn’t fool any of us. Side dishes sometimes save us, but everyone has their own version of what’s traditional, so we don’t always get the same good ones.

There’s the family of origin gathered around the table part, too.

These are folks you rarely see otherwise, people you no longer have much in common with, and one or two who make you question your commitment to nonviolence. Enjoy yourself.


A classic Norman Rockwell   For a bit on the history of this painting, see last year’s Thanksgiving Day post. 


Of course, if you’ve read your copy of my book, LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, this Thanksgiving may hold a special excitement for you. Let me know how it goes.

Along those lines, if you want a good laugh instead, you’ll find thirteen of them from Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic: “Thirteen Easy Tips for Politicizing Your Thanksgiving Dinner.” It was difficult, but I finally decided my personal favorite is number 11:

It is your moral obligation to discuss climate change, as all life on earth is doomed unless everyone leaves your table convinced of the need to ban the use of fossil fuels. Don’t serve dessert until you’ve reached consensus. 

What else is there to complain about?

Oh yes, the going around the table announcing what we are grateful for.

My complaint isn’t that we do it. It’s because we think that’s all we need to do. Why don’t we do it the other 364 days of the year? In fact, science now tells us if we did this everyday we’d all be a whole lot happier. Why wait for just one day?


Still, believe it or not, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

I see it as controlled chaos among people who accept us just as we are (including political beliefs run amok) without having to buy presents.

To make the day truly memorable, though, something must go amiss — ideally with the food or a visiting pet —  just as folks begin to gather at the table. One year, back in my Ohio life, I set my lit candles on a nearby bookshelf to get extra room on the table top. Just as the passing of the food was picking up steam, the glass shelf above the candles cracked, everything fell, red candle wax sprayed out, slivers of glass dug in all around. And sixteen people jumped up to save the day.

Good memories.

This year I’ll be back in Ohio where one son and his family will host an extensive gathering of siblings, grandparents, former spouses, children, and neighbors. And we’ll still be glad we went.

How will you celebrate this Thanksgiving? Will you be host or guest? Cook or clean? Travel or stay home?  Do share.

A question for my outside-the-US readers, does your country have an annual Thanksgiving Day? Do tell.  

If you’d like to hand out copies of my LEAPFROG booklet (How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era),  it’s live on Amazon. And remember, when you purchase the paperback book through Amazon, you get the eBook for free, which gives you the live Resources links. (They’re also on my LEARN MORE page).   Here’s the link to my book page.  (as of this writing, Amazon has not yet merged the paperback and the Kindle on the same page.  Hopefully, by the time this posts, this will be corrected).

Have a different eReader? I’m still deciding on whether to join Amazon Select or distribute wide.  So if you’d rather buy the eBook for a different reader, let me know which one.

Next week:  I do believe we will have a very special guest post.

14 Responses

  1. Carol Taylor
    | Reply

    I have never lived anywhere where Thanksgiving is celebrated.. The idea of dinner without all the hazzle of gift choosing and wrapping appeals… Your idea of not serving dessert until everyone had agreed to the need to ban fossil fuels appealed to me… although the dessert lovers at my table would probably agree to anything to get their dessert… Haha

  2. Merril D Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet. I like Thanksgiving, too. Not the history and the mythical history (if you’re interested, I heard a bit of this show yesterday: https://whyy.org/episodes/the-real-history-of-thanksgiving/ ). I believe the timing of Lincoln’s proclamation had to do with it being post-Gettysburg battle in October. Of course, there were many Thanksgiving in the various colonies and states before that time.
    I love stuffing–at least the way I make it–and the side dishes. I don’t think my gravy is particularly greasy, as I make it from stock, not drippings, and I also make a vegan mushroom gravy that’s delicious. So, I think the food is good, but it’s a celebration of family and love for us. Though this year, it will be difficult, since my mom can’t be with us, and we’ll be kind of split up. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Congratulations and good luck with your book.
    Merril D Smith recently posted…The Sound, the Sight, the Magic, the LightMy Profile

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    My favorite holiday too, Janet! Your post was full of opposing viewpoints, that I like since I was part of the cooperative learning initiative at the college, which taught the art of controversy in small groups, believe it or not. Very effective teaching technique.

    Great posts – and comments!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Thanksgiving Collection II, a RepriseMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Good morning Marian. And thank you for the acknowledgment. There’s always an opposing viewpoint—- and how truly tiring that can be. I imagine that’s why we all prefer to meet with those of like minds. So much more comfortable. And, these days, so dangerous. Have a great Thanksgiving.
      Janet Givens recently posted…A New Look at Thanksgiving: the strange ritual we pull off each yearMy Profile

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Had I been drinking a cup of coffee (thankfully, I’d just set it down) when I read:

    “To make the day truly memorable, though, something must go amiss,”

    it would have shot out my nose with laughter!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Clive Pilcher
    | Reply

    There are some different views on the historical beginnings of your celebration, one of which blames us for sending over the Mayflower and its travellers, who somehow formalised what had been happening for a while, well before Lincoln’s decree. We don’t do Thanksgiving here but that doesn’t deter me: I’ll be posting about it again tomorrow! I hope you have a wonderful time with your family.
    Clive Pilcher recently posted…Under The CoversMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Clive. Actually the Pilgrims had been living in Holland for many years before deciding to move on to America. Turns out they thought the children were getting corrupted. They returned to England to outfit the boat. And yes indeed, how different our lives would have been better for so many had they just stayed in Holland. Our Dutch friends don’t agree, of course. Good to have you visit, always.
      Janet Givens recently posted…A New Look at Thanksgiving: the strange ritual we pull off each yearMy Profile

  6. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Best to you, Janet. Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holiday, as well. I like the (mostly) non-commercial element to it, and the focus on food, family, and friends. We’ll be headed to my sister-in-laws shortly, who typically hosts. We merely had a make a couple of sides (cranberry sauce, which is a must in my view, and baked carrots from my garden). Fortunately, it’s a strong group of people who I enjoy spending time with, and (amazingly) largely philosophically aligned. Say hello to Ohio for me. – T

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