Why Thanksgiving?

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The Feast Illustrator: Howard Terpning

Growing up, we never celebrated Thanksgiving in our house. Yes, I did eat my share of turkey, macaroni and cheese and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, but we never celebrated Thanksgiving in our house.

My father was raised as a Moorish-American, his father an astute historian who taught his children about the evils of early American history and the lies perpetuated in our history books. My father was his brightest pupil, a precocious child who grew into a walking, breathing paradox. In one sentence, I’ve heard my father tell a person griping about America that we live in the greatest country on the planet, and if you don’t like it you can leave, and then in the next sentence I’ve seen him tell a person how wicked America has been to the indigenous American and to the Black man.

The Pilgrims never had a Thanksgiving dinner with the Indians. That’s a lie! Santa is fake. Ain’t no fat white guy coming down this chimney to bring you anything. We don’t celebrate foolish holidays in this house.

These were my lessons regarding holidays. Short, and to the point. We don’t celebrate foolish holidays in this house. And, we didn’t. My sisters and I never colored Easter eggs and hid them around our home. Every Christmas, while neighbors were hanging ornaments and lights on their homes, we were doing no such thing. A Christmas tree? You better not even mention one, or risk getting a half-hour lecture on how Christmas is a ploy to get the poor to spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need. And, we didn’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner in our home. My father wouldn’t even dare eat anything that could be misconstrued as Thanksgiving food on that day.

However, while 192 Greene Avenue was always quiet on Thanksgiving, my mother made sure that her three children were able to experience what it meant to be a part of the holiday. Every year, she’d cook my father some baked fish, spaghetti with marinara and other non-Thanksgiving entrees, and then take us to various family members’ homes for Thanksgiving dinner. Oftentimes, it would be at an aunt or an uncle’s home. We’d go over and my sisters and I would spend the day playing with our cousins, watching football games and eating until our stomachs were full. I can remember how fun it was to be around my family, some of them I wouldn’t see all year until Thanksgiving. I can remember one Thanksgiving at my Uncle Kenneth’s house, his new wife at the time was Puerto Rican and that Thanksgiving was the first time I ever tasted rice made with Sofrito and olives. I learned through my mother’s guidance that Thanksgiving wasn’t at all about what some Pilgrims did or didn’t do to some Indians. It’s about getting together with your family and sharing a space for a few hours where you laugh together, cook together and eat together.

Eating together as a family is a very important thing. There are all kinds of smart-aleck studies that suggest that children are healthier and they do better in school when they eat more with their family. The dinner table is not unlike a meeting table in a conference room. It is a place of communication, a place where we can discuss ourselves and how the world is affecting us. It is a place of understanding. We leave the table satiated and happy, and in the time it takes to finish a meal, we’ve discussed concepts and ideals while laughing at corny jokes and listening to worldly theories. We’ve learned that we aren’t alienated in this world. We’ve learned that we are not alone. This is how eating together can transform children, how it molds those children into loving adults. This is the importance of Thanksgiving. It isn’t about Pilgrims. It’s about family, and being able to eat with family, if only for one day out of the year.

My father still hangs around the house alone on Thanksgiving. He’s 77 now, and you all know the adage about trying to teach an old dog new tricks. Now that their kids are adults, my mother gets to spend Thanksgiving with her children and her grandchildren. She loves that. And we even got my father to start eating Thanksgiving-sanctioned food on Thanksgiving! So, even though he still prefers to be alone at home on that day, he’s eating mac and cheese and turkey with stuffing.

My father taught me what Thanksgiving isn’t. My mother taught me what Thanksgiving is. I appreciate them both for that. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!!