Let’s not talk about it
This year it seems the holiday season is taking on a different tone. These are the times — November, December and the new year — that families come together from near and far to celebrate, eat, and kibitz with each other. But the distances this year may not only be miles traveled, but whole value gaps which may or may not be bridgeable.
Our current political environment is about the most divisive I can remember, perhaps excluding the Viet Nam War era. There are still Berners furious with the Democratic National Convention; still “I’m with Her” folks feeling like the Berners threw the election. Some Trump fans are still chanting “Lock Her Up!” and many non-Trump supporters are still unable even to speak the name of our president.
Sometimes there’s a few of each in the same family. So what do you do when you’re sitting around the table together? There was a lot of talk this year about which topics could be broached and which were verboten.
There were some serious discussions at our Thanksgiving table. Fortunately, I was with a group of 30 family and friends who share the same set of political views. So there were none of those awkward silences that might have infected other gatherings. In fact, it was just the opposite. The room was full of warmth, good smells, laughter, rambunctious kid-energy and the kind of environment that promotes safety and ease.
Although our gathering had folks traveling from St. Louis, New York, Humboldt County, Irvine, California, and Chicago; and though we had a wild and wonderful mix of ethnicities, ages, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds — our turkey day was both delicious and soothing. Everything from Margaritas and the Right Track small-scale wooden railroad yard construction (complete with Dinosaurs) to the pumpkin and lemon meringue pies was just about perfect.
I’d say it was the classic American family scene. There was the host’s sister who for decades has been growing marijuana and can now talk openly about her booming business. One of the host’s two daughters from an earlier marriage — who long-ago divorced her husband when he decided he was gay — now has remarried another guy. (The divorced husband and his husband were also present.) There’s the friend who always makes her much-vaunted eggplant parmesan. (She arrived in another cast having broken the same left arm several years in a row, just at Thanksgiving time.)
Then there’s the biological son of the now-long-time-married host-couple whose best friend arrived just after the turkey was served. (We saw them later on the mandatory round-the-neighborhood-loop-walk under the crescent moon, “We’re going to check out his new radial tires!” “Gee, that sounds thrilling,” said no one.)
Three large tables were beautifully set with the family silver, cloth napkins, and china. The kitchens (there were two in the house, one for each turkey) were bustling nerve centers where counters were loaded with splendidly-woven challah bread; mounds of mashed potatoes, paddled up into a punk Mohawk; braised Brussels sprouts; mashed cauliflower; sweet potatoes; bean casserole; green salads; two different cranberry sauces; and — well, in short, the usual bounty the likes of which was only seen last year at this time.
Let’s talk turkey
But let’s talk turkey: that first mythical Thanksgiving — let’s say it was Virginia’s Jamestown Colony just before the winter of 1609 — was a rude, sparse affair, with scavenging for food and much more morbid activities. Let’s just say it — there is evidence of cannibalism (documented here by the Smithsonian Magazine tinyurl.com/yagsrutr) meticulously researched by forensic archaeologist Douglas Owsley (the same guy who examined our own 9,000 year-old Kennewick Man). Owsley has examined over 10,000 bodies, including the victims of 1980s serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s the random and inexpert cuts and nicks on the buried bones and bodies that give away the clues to what was called “The Starving Times” at the Jamestown scene.
In 1625, George Percy, who’d been president of Jamestown during the Starving Time, wrote a letter describing their diet during that terrible winter (tinyurl.com/yca8fb4b): “Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce…as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather. And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.”
There are other unsettling and hypocritical aspects to this holiday, ones that every school child knows but the rest of us rarely talk about — that is that the Native Americans got those early settlers through the tough times by trading with them, sharing their food, and teaching them about the importance of agriculture. (I suppose they now rue the day they were so kind given how the tribes have been and are being treated in post-America on our continent.)
The other indignity Indians must suffer is that in an all-too-typical and throw away gesture of expiation, George W. Bush signed into law that the Friday after Thanksgiving would be Native American Heritage Day. It’s meant to be a day we pay tribute to Native Americans for their many contributions to the United States. Now of course it’s Black Friday, a day consumed by capitalism, and it’s everything antithetical to Native life and values.
Activist, journalist, and Oglala Lakota Native Simon Moya-Smith (talking to Here & Now’s Robin Young, tinyurl.com/yd7qwmq9) says, “Black Friday is a day of excess and gluttony and greed and aggressive capitalism. And that [naming of Native Heritage Day] is extremely poor taste. When you look at our values as indigenous people, it’s not materialistic — especially if you look at what happened at Standing Rock, we say honor the water. Honor the earth. Honor the people. And on this specific day, it’s the complete opposite of what we teach our youth and what’s taught to us and what we value.”
Well, what can we say: Americans seem to have a lot of special characteristics — inventiveness, creativity, hard work, self-sufficiency, and determination — but another one of them is surely the ability to look away when ethically-horrendous acts of horror take place. Our ability to sugar-coat our past is mythic. And our current propensity to be tempted by the Real fake news of Russian bots, Breitbart, Fox and others seems unfathomable. I don’t say we all have to agree to get along, but we need some grounding in facts in order to support the democratic institutions so critical to the continuity of our country.
At my Thanksgiving table this year, I saw a generation of multi-colored and multi-cultural youngsters growing up under the tutelage of caring and informed adults. I have faith in these future citizens.