As Thanksgiving approached this year, I felt it had become a holiday without meaning for my family. We have lots of traditions, and it always involves a very special couple of days with grandparents and cousins in Massachusetts, but the reasons we celebrate the holiday have faded behind the blockbuster movies, shopping excursions, and feeling of eating way, way too much. It had become a long weekend of travel, traffic and the heralding in of the Christmas season.
I spoke to my 17-year-old daughter, at a moment in life of rebellion in all ways, about this and the meaning behind our observance. She sees Thanksgiving as a celebration marking the colonization of America and the genocide of the native people, thus not worthy of real recognition. I get her point, but what about the other values ascribed to the holiday tale, like religious tolerance, welcoming the stranger, finding a helping community? What about their family’s past and its relevance to Thanksgiving today?
The history of the Pilgrims and the conquest of New England by British colonists is filled with violence, but the story of the first Thanksgiving is symbolic of my family’s journey. We, as a family with no ties to the Mayflower and ancestors who washed upon these shores in waves of immigration from 1890 through 1940, celebrate being Americans on this day. My children can pray, learn, and protest all as they see fit because they are citizens and their forebears were permitted to make homes and communities here.
As Jews from all over Europe, my daughter’s ancestors certainly faced discrimination when they first came to this country. Yet their devotion to the promise of America was strong as they started businesses, contributed to their cities, and proudly served in the military. First living in urban ghettos, like the Lower East Side of old, they worked and worked until they could move into houses and better neighborhoods.
My girls see that the American Dream hasn’t happened for everyone, but the chance to strive for it is precious today to so many Muslims, Christians, Jews, and followers of other religions, and those forced from their countries by war, famine, and persecution. They should all be offered a place at the table, just as our family once was.
My daughters, who for the first time will be old enough to vote in a Presidential election (an American ritual equally important as eating turkey and pumpkin pie), are bombarded, like the rest of us, by the bigotry and religious intolerance of the Republican candidates. Thanksgiving gives me a poignant way to discuss our family’s past and the relevance of the holiday today, not just to us, but to the many who so desperately want to come here, ready to work, to build, and to serve. Our right to pray freely, to be judged on our actions and not the country we came from, are part of the meaning of Thanksgiving, along with the freedom to stand in line for early bird specials, video games, and giant televisions.
This year, I’ve found renewed meaning in the holiday and I’ve tried to pass this on to my daughters — along with the stuffing and applesauce.