Thanksgiving is an interesting phenomenon. It always comes in at number two in the holiday popularity polls, just behind Christmas. That’s a pretty high ranking when you consider how humble the holiday is. It doesn’t come with the ghoulish decorating or the fun-filled house-egging that we enjoy every Halloween. It doesn’t come with the raucous parties of New Year’s or the exhilarating explosives of Independence Day. And yet, year in and year out, Americans rank Thanksgiving as their almost favorite holiday. If aliens were to beam in from another galaxy and look in on earthlings bowing their heads at a table, they would surely conclude that this group’s gathering had all the makings of a funeral.
And yet people love Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving. For years, I assumed it was the scrumptious food that gave the holiday its appeal. Our family’s chefs, mostly women (as was often the case in the 50s), competed to see who could prepare the best dishes, so the food was always spectacular. The men competed for the title of “Biggest Eater,” creating a susceptibility to heart disease and diabetes that has been a family tradition for decades.
And don’t forget the fun and lively debate over which foods should be included in the sacred meal. There are always some dishes that are falling out of fashion. My parents fought over who got to eat the turkey giblets. (Shiver—gag.) My grandparents adored mincemeat pie, my mom and dad liked it, and we kids never even gave it a taste. After all, it is called mincemeat pie.
Then it struck me that neither food nor food trends give Thanksgiving its charm; it’s the gratitude the holiday inspires coupled with the time people spend together that makes the day so special. Of course, our family spent time together during all of the major holidays, but Thanksgiving seemed to offer more “quality time.” Here’s where it gets tricky. As everyone knows, time is measured by planetary movements and resides in some weird fourth dimension that can’t be understood by anyone who doesn’t carry a slide rule. Fortunately, quality time is easier to understand—or so says my neighbor. According to him, quality time is any time spent with loved ones on the beach at Maui.
I think he’s onto something. At our house growing up, we’d finish eating the Thanksgiving meal embarrassingly fast and, since nobody wanted to help with the cleanup, we’d quickly escape to various corners of the house where family members would talk in small groups until three hours later when we’d repeat the cycle. During all this conversing we’d enjoy what I consider to be genuine quality time. We’d engage in the art of conversation across generations. For example, one Thanksgiving, while keeping a safe distance from the kitchen by hiding with Granddad in the den, I asked him what the scariest thing he had ever experienced was. I asked him this particular question because I was thirteen, he was seventy-seven, and talking about my crush on Mouseketeer Annette Funicello seemed out of the question.
Grandpa then shared what he called “a real hair raiser.” Once, while crossing the country in a railroad boxcar (“It was legal back in those days,” he explained), he and three strangers were rumbling along minding their own business when two of them suddenly broke into a knife fight and the larger fellow killed the smaller one. From there, Grandpa vividly described how he and the other non-fighter subdued the stabber and ended up serving as star witnesses in the subsequent trial.
“They didn’t have a hotel in the small town where the trial was held,” Grandpa said, “so they put us up in the town jail and fed us homemade meals prepared by the locals who treated us as celebrities.” Grandpa went on to tell the fascinating details of this experience while I hung on his every word.
We alternated telling stories of this nature while playing cards. When gathered around a card table we still talked, but the tenor and tone of the conversation changed dramatically. Adults and pre-teens alike engaged in rapid-fire patter where everyone practiced the art of bluffing, teasing, and wisecracking. Kids even picked up a few social skills along the way. I remember Mom once called Dad a “dirty rat” when he stuck her with the queen of spades. I called my grandma a “dirty rat” for doing the same thing and quickly learned that not all expressions were suited to all people.
These kinds of educational and bonding conversations went on for hours every Thanksgiving, turning the holiday into a Patterson family favorite. I suspect this is true for most people who hold a similar gathering. But I wonder how long this popularity will last. I fear that Thanksgiving conversations might be decreasing in popularity, just like the once-beloved giblets and mincemeat pie. With the rise of tweets, texts, and posts—along with all the fun to be had playing video games (where talking is largely replaced by thumb moving)—only time will tell whether electronic equipment will diminish the art of conversation, and along with it, our beloved Thanksgiving.
This I know for sure. Our fourteen grandkids will arrive at our home Thanksgiving Day toting all manner of smart phones and other gadgets that will appear on the surface to be a lot more fun than talking with an old codger such as I. Our home is also loaded with gaming platforms and big-screens that might appear to be a much faster pathway to fun than conversing face-to-face with people who don’t even tweet. Nevertheless, I’m prepared to do what it takes to keep Thanksgiving high in the holiday rankings. I have a boatload of engaging anecdotes and clever remarks at the ready. I hope the same is true for you. And if I need to, I can bring in the heavy artillery. I have a story that illuminates how at age fourteen, my buddies and I were almost eaten by sharks. It’s a real hair raiser.