Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin when trying to explain how great Thanksgiving is. I guess I can start by saying that a mere side effect of this holiday is one of the very best things about it: it acts as a barrier to Christmas, that overblown, corporate-driven, consumer-fest of a holiday that is so far removed from the spirit of giving on which it’s supposed to be based that it sometimes causes supreme acts of selfishness and greed (see Black Friday). A holiday that retailers would just as soon start shoving down our throats the day after Halloween if it weren’t for that pesky ol’ cockblock of a holiday, Thanksgiving, being in the way. But like I said, despite the heroic role it plays in protecting us from being made physically ill by an overexposure to Christmas songs and pine needles, this is the least of the reasons this holiday is great.
Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, not because it’s about being American, but because it’s about including everyone, something that is, regardless of the state of our politics at any given time, the ideal our country was founded on and the one that we are always, in the long run, working towards.
Thanksgiving’s inclusiveness starts with the fact that it is not religious. I almost feel like saying this will come as a surprise to some people but Christmas, our biggest holiday, is in fact, a religious event. And as much as the religious origins of this holiday are increasingly overlooked as it becomes more and more of a social occasion, its religious roots still leave many feeling excluded. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, creates no such feelings. From Atheist to Zoroastrian (see what I did there) people of all beliefs systems can fully embrace this holiday.
Something else that also makes the holiday so inclusive is that it’s not particularly patriotic and is not owned by any one culture. A person doesn’t have to feel a deep allegiance to America or an ownership of it to participate. Unlike the 4th of July, an immigrant or a new citizen or a foreigner visiting can truly feel all the same emotions this day can stir up just as deeply as a person who can trace their family lineage back to the Mayflower. And unlike fun festivals like St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo, both of which are becoming increasingly widespread and universally celebrated, it’s not a holiday dedicated to any specific group, ancestry or heritage.
The fact that no one culture owns the holiday in America is so important to its inclusiveness because it essentially means there’s no wrong way to do it. Outside of the basics ideas of sharing food with people you care about and remembering to be thankful for the good things in your life, this holiday can be individualized to your heart’s content, and what’s more American than that? Don’t get me wrong, please dear Lord in heaven, do not invite me to your house if you aren’t planning on serving turkey, cranberry sauce, mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes (the rest of the sides I take it or leave it), but at the same time, not even this is a rule. No one is going to tell a group of Hindu vegetarians their dinner doesn’t count if they don’t have a turkey, and no one is going to tell an immigrant family they’re doing it wrong if, instead of the traditional fixings, they prepare their favorite foods from their native country.
That’s because even though food is central to the holiday, it’s not as central as the reason for which it is offered. Thanksgiving is simply about sharing a meal, hopefully a big gluttonous one, but even more than that, it’s about sharing that meal with family and friends and remembering to be thankful for them and for the food and for anything else good going on in your life. And while sometimes a person might be feeling down on life or on their luck, inevitably, if their sitting at a table full of food and surrounded by people who love and care about them, they won’t have to look hard to find something to be thankful for.
Perhaps there is no better example of the inclusiveness of Thanksgiving than the most clichéd story about the holiday involves people taking in someone who has nowhere else to go. After traveling around the world, I can say I have encountered holidays in some places that are meant for just family and where outsiders and non-relatives really aren’t welcomed. That’s all well and good, but I’m really glad Thanksgiving isn’t that way, and I love the idea that if I encounter someone who needs a place to go, I know I can bring them home and everyone will be genuinely glad to have one more person to share food with.
Sidebar: For the last few years I’ve been living overseas and haven’t been home for turkey day. However, I have never not celebrated the holiday, whether it was just going out to dinner with friends, going to someone’s house or hosting it myself. While I miss being home for this holiday more than any other, the best part of doing it overseas has been being able to share the holiday with people from all around the world, and I’ve really loved how truly excited and appreciative people from other countries have been to participate in the holiday.