“So what is Thanksgiving exactly? I mean, what’s the story?”Ryan, a young, curious, rambunctious Australian, couldn’t resist asking the question to Americans he was sharing a meal with in Peru on the first night of a four-day trek through the Andes to Machu Picchu.
The Americans – Emily, Mary, Jon and I – looked at each other and smiled, taken aback by the question.
When was the last time we’d been asked that question? Or had we ever? And where do we begin?
“Well,” I said. “Thanksgiving represents a time in the early 1600s when some of the first Pilgrims arrived in America and were welcomed by Squanto and his tribe.”
“They had a great feast,” Emily added, “and gave thanks, hence, Thanksgiving.”
We explained, however, that the history of Thanksgiving is hardly looked at anymore, as mainly the holiday is looked at as a day to get together with family.
“And watch football,” Jon added. “There is always a Cowboys game and a Lions game.”
While talking with Ryan and his “blokes,” it made us think a little deeper about the day. And, now, seven years later, as I reflect on that moment, I ask myself: what does Thanksgiving mean to me?
On the Inca Trail in Peru, 2008
When I was a child, you couldn’t have Thanksgiving without talking about the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, Squanto and the Pilgrims. Somewhere there are pictures of me from kindergarten wearing a paper Pilgrim hat. I loved the story. In fact, the first book I ever read by myself was about Squanto. He was a hero to me.
But what made Thanksgiving special – even back then – was the time around the dinner table with mom, dad and my older sister Rebekah.
“Charlie, what are you thankful for this year?” my mom would ask.
Like many families, that was our tradition the last Thursday of every November. We’d go around the table and share. I valued it then and still value it today.
Here’s what Thanksgiving means to me: it’s not about who is playing the Dallas Cowboys, and it’s definitely not about who is playing the Detroit Lions. It’s not about gearing up for Black Friday deals. And it’s not even about turkey. Sure, turkey is nice, especially for nostalgic reasons, but my fiancée is vegetarian, so I’ve come to accept (and enjoy) vegetarian lasagna, even if I am the odd carnivore out.
There is a rich history to the holiday, yes, but much of the history is dark. Relations between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans did not stay peaceful for long. A master communicator, Squanto was also a master manipulator, as he tried to take advantage of both the Natives and the English for his own personal gain. If it weren’t for the ship “Fortune” arriving to Plymouth when it did, Squanto would have been executed. Nevertheless, the guidance he provided the early American immigrants on how to set corn, how to fish and how to solicit other assets was invaluable.
Today, when I think about Thanksgiving, I give thanks. I give thanks for my health, my family, my relationships and I give thanks to live in such a beautiful place as Montana. I am also tremendously thankful to live in the United States of America. Sure, sometimes we are frustrated with what’s going on politically at the state or national level. Sure there are times when I find something to complain about, but on Thanksgiving, I am continually reminded how we too often take what we have for granted. If we gave thanks more often, we’d appreciate what we have more.
It may not be that simple, but then again, it very well could be that simple.
And if ever someone were to ask me about Thanksgiving again, perhaps that’s what I’d say.
(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus November 2015)