Thanksgiving is what we make of it

It can be a day of reflection, sharing, and generosity

THANKSGIVING WAS ALWAYS a mixed bag for me. The holiday of my youth was decidedly about large family gatherings accompanied by large amounts of food. The kitchen table (we had no dining room) groaned under the weight of the abundance and a folding card table served as the “kids table.”

It was a very gender stratified event as the men settled in the living room watching an endless stream of football games, games I didn’t understand or have the slightest interest in. It was painfully boring and, banished from the kitchen, I usually found myself outdoors sitting on the front steps of our East Boston triple decker where I would count the airplanes approaching nearby runway 15/33 and wonder what air travel was like. Thanksgiving in my youth was not a shared experience.

As the years went on, as relatives died, or married, or moved away, the guest list shrank but the feast had a life of its own. My mother didn’t know how to, or more accurately didn’t choose to, shrink the size of the dinner offerings. As she grew older and I played a larger role in the kitchen, the holiday became an exhausting marathon of cooking, eating, and cleaning up. We were trying to recreate the Thanksgivings of our youth rather than invent new ways of celebrating the occasion, and it was a fool’s errand. We were having the experience but missing the meaning.

I don’t regret those later Thanksgivings.  You do what you have to do to make the holidays manageable. You put aside your preferences and desires and participate in the rituals that make others feel happy. There is in this a generosity of spirit that bespeaks the point of the holiday.

Thanksgiving for us changed abruptly in 2019.  My mother died that September and my father died shortly thereafter, on Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving 2019 was a day of watching, waiting, holding hands. My father’s grasp was strong that day, a day when I had nothing left to give but to hold his hand. I found myself alone with him for a few hours that day, alone with him and my thoughts, never letting go of his hand. Was I reassuring him or myself? Perhaps I was doing both.

This year we will have a proper Thanksgiving for the first time since 2018. By “proper” I mean an adult Thanksgiving, where the pescatarians can have their fish rather than turkey, where pumpkin pie can give way to blueberry because no one really is crazy about pumpkin pie, and where fully vaccinated people can gather safely. We can be thankful for small things.

And we can be thankful for the fall of 2019, however painful it was. In retrospect we were lucky that Thanksgiving, because our two 93-year-old parents were dying just before the onset of the pandemic and it was already, before COVID, a soul-crushing experience. The 24/7 home care we were providing them in a second-floor apartment of our triple decker would have become more challenging than I could imagine if we had to also manage keeping them safe from COVID-19.  We can be thankful for small things, and large.

It’s hard these days to think about the quality of thankfulness, which seems inapt at a time of great social strife. We tend to think of the “first Thanksgiving” through the lens of the Pilgrim story, of Plymouth Plantation and the beginnings of colonial America. But the first politically sanctioned Thanksgiving, the one that began the annual tradition, was declared by President Lincoln in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War.  For Lincoln, the proclamation was a way to reassure the nation that despite the horrors of war, a war that had another fifteen brutal months ahead of it, the nation still had something to give thanks for.

Lincoln’s message was this: the nation had a future. After paying the high wages of a costly war, it was still growing, expanding, thriving. Lincoln was showing the American people that there was light at the end of the tunnel, offering thanks for the nation’s resilience and steadfastness in a time of maximum crisis.

Thankfulness in 2021 may seem to some a saccharine impulse, as we enter a time of great disruptive change as a fractured nation, less united than ever in my lifetime, a time when social cohesion is at risk, when income and education inequality deprive people of a fair chance to participate in the opportunities only a privileged few can easily attain. We’ve got a lot of work to do to build a more just and inclusive society.

There’s a lot to think about when we think about Thanksgiving, not just the holiday but the impulse to be thankful. Thankfulness it best when its genuine, not forced by holiday conventions. It’s best when it reflects a generosity of spirit, a purposefulness that transcends self-satisfaction.  Purposefulness is a way of going beyond “I am thankful because of this good thing that has happened to me” and moving toward something more outward facing and generous.

Meet the Author

The fullest expression of thankfulness will be different and unique for each of us, and that’s a good thing. Thanksgiving is what we make of it under the circumstances. It doesn’t have to be a Hallmark card holiday awash in unrealistic expectations. It can be a day of reflection, sharing, generosity.

For me, I will remember the large family gatherings, the groaning feasts, the yearning for a past that we were foolish to hold on to at the expense of embracing the present. And I’ll remember holding on to a hand, the firmness of the grasp, the quiet in that room. That may have been the most intensely shared experience of any Thanksgiving I will ever have in my lifetime, and as painful as it was, I’m grateful for having had that experience and not missed its meaning.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a TransitMatters board member.