Coming together over Thanksgiving dinner

By John Barron

Thanksgiving is a curiously American holiday, although a variation is also celebrated north of the border in Canada.

The modern festivities usually involving hormone-primed turkeys and pumpkin pies, and anything from lasagna to tofu stir-fries — bearing only a passing resemblance to the first meal shared by pilgrims and native Americans at Plymouth in 1621, but that in itself tells a story of how far the colony has come.

A year after The Mayflower reached what’s now the state of Massachusetts, the pilgrims had endured much, but thanks to a treaty with the locals and a sharing of knowledge about growing maize and good hunting and fishing spots, they survived and, by November, were ready to celebrate a fine harvest.

Corn bread, wild fowl, shellfish, and yams were in abundance, but, as they feasted, the Pilgrims knew that their second winter was drawing near and famine was only one bad season away.

These days, of course, many more Americans die because of too much food than not enough, and goodness knows what the pilgrims would think of the 21st century additions to Thanksgiving tables. Marshmallow in an aerosol can would rightly be considered the work of the devil.

While different faiths will observe Easter, Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, and more, Thanksgiving is largely secular and, as a result, the busiest time of the year for travelling home.

The conversations around the Thanksgiving tables of America are sure to be revealing this year, after a bitter political battle over the White House and an economy that still can’t find work for millions of Americans. Half the table will love Obama, the other half will hate him.

Families have probably always fought over politics: ageing uncles lapsing into racist language after their fourth beer, college kids home for the first time since they discovered Karl Marx, parents with mortgage-worries and fixed ideas about what’s wrong with America today…

But I can imagine many more awkward homecomings this year than before — as the generations come together, leaving their ideological cul-de-sacs created by partisan media on the left and the right.

Twenty or thirty years ago, most Americans still got their news from the same sources: iconic news anchors like Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather, who kept their political opinions to themselves and brought you the facts.

These days news consumers tend to pick and choose. Conservatives watch Fox News, read right wing blogs, and listen to AM talk radio; progressives watch MSNBC, read The New York Times, or listen to NPR.

The resulting competing realities may well make civil discussions over Thanksgiving dinner very difficult indeed. Yet somehow the pilgrims and native Americans in 1621 found a way. Perhaps they were lucky not to have a media industry in the business of division and dispute.

22 November 2012