Towards a New Idea of
Denise Kiernan on Gratitude, Gathering, and the Gift of Giving
As an American, celebrating Thanksgiving abroad can be a joyous and at times hilariously frustrating experience. I was living in Rome for the second time in my life—my first sojourn there coming right after college when I found myself unable to leave, sucked into the sometimes dolce, often frustrating, but ultimately beguiling vita of the expat.
This time, I had returned on purpose and was freelancing. Many of my Roman and American friends were still living there, and many were familiar with the concept of American Thanksgiving. Now, while the city is charmingly notorious for shutting down in the middle of the day for siesta, it does not shut down for American holidays. And so celebrating the feast day that Italians refer to as the giorno del ringraziamento—literally “day of thanks”—often results in making do with dishes like salsa di mirtilli (blueberry sauce) or substituting ribes (currants) for that indispensable Thanksgiving staple, cranberries. The cranberry is called mirtillo rosso americano in Italian, which means “red American blueberry.” They were, when I lived abroad in the early aughts, wickedly difficult to get your hands on in the Eternal City.
If there is Black Friday in America, there is Cranberry November in Rome. Throughout the city, ex pat Americans out-maneuver one another with the ferocity of razor-elbowed shoppers prowling big-box stores and vying for the last available must-have du jour. They desperately seek out and barter for even the perma-ridged, sugar-soaked, elusive cans of premade cranberry sauce, the kind that exits its container with a pffft and a plop and sits on your plate, jiggling, a little crimson tube of jellied nostalgia. Thank God for connections at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Administration, and its expat-friendly commissary. Ocean Spray! My kingdom for some bog-raked Ocean Spray!
Rome was not the first city beyond United States borders where I attempted to celebrate an American Thanksgiving. Years earlier, in fact, I had joined several friends in descending upon the apartment and hospitality of a French friend living in Paris. After a long yet ultimately successful quest for a turkey—a whole one that had had most of its feathers removed—we transported what I was sure was one of the smallest birds I had ever seen back to the flat. There we realized that the bird was actually big compared to the French oven expected to fully contain it. The oven door would not shut. Cooking turkey is already a marathon event. It takes a lot longer to accomplish when a good 30 percent of the heat is escaping via an open oven door. We waited. We laughed. We—eventually—ate. We were thankful to be among friends. We were thankful not to get food poisoning.
Money was tight. I had decided not to travel home for the holidays that year, which was not particularly unusual. In fact, I had spent more than a few Thankgivings at the homes of others. I had traditions I held dear that had nothing to do with my own family, but rather my adopted ones.
And yet whether I was scouring the streets of Rome for cranberries and nutmeg or arguing with the monsieur behind the counter of a French boucherie about how a turkey was supposed to be prepared for roasting, I often wondered what had brought me to this desperate state and why I cared. Why do Americans cling so fervently to this holiday? Why was I doing this? Why do so many of us do this every year, no matter our religion, ethnic background, feelings for our relatives, or discomfort with the holiday’s own troubling origin stories—many of which have been revealed to be myth?Why do Americans cling so fervently to Thanksgiving? Why was I doing this? Why do so many of us do this every year?
Thanksgiving weekend has served as an emotional touchstone for me in many ways, and not always a pleasant one. Even today, the long weekend brings up a variety of trying memories: A death in the family. A particularly painful breakup I never saw coming (and as a romantic pessimist I almost always saw them coming). Screaming matches. And, rest her soul, my mother’s lackluster stuffing.
Add to this cornucopia of melancholy the fact that I have long known—as so many of us have—that the holiday can be even more painful for Indigenous peoples, many of whom mark the event as a day of mourning year after year to broaden the understanding of how the holiday has evolved in North America.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
That Thanksgiving weekend that had seen me essentially kicked to the airport curb by a newly minted ex, a friend picked me up and took me home. I cried into my yams but was happy being with people who cared for even the messiest version of me.
Yes, other Thanksgivings had seen deaths family—but there had been celebrations and births, soon learned to make my own selection of stuffings, year I even helped assemble that unholiest culinary orgies, a turducken: a turkey stuffed with stuffed with . . . you get the picture. It’s like a poultry nesting doll with gravy.
I love celebrating Thanksgiving. There is something about knowing that one weekend year, things will slow down a bit. I will not have to buy presents or send cards, and there is no particular religious practice associated with this holiday that would make me or anyone else feel uncomfortable. It is a time for food and friends. It is a time to say, above all else, things may be kind of a disaster right now, but thank you. I’m grateful to be here, whatever “here” happens to be offering right now.
From the mirtilli to the mashed potatoes, my version of Thanksgiving—like that of so many other individuals—has evolved over time. I want to feel good about Thanksgiving. But it has also begun to feel as though it is on the cusp of another evolution, in what we know of it and how we celebrate it now.I love celebrating Thanksgiving. There is something about knowing that one weekend year, things will slow down a bit.
Years ago, I began looking into the stories behind both “little-t” thanksgivings and the American “big-T” Thanksgiving, and that meant exploring more than just decades of menus and historical whitewashing. There is a lot of history there. The origins of the day were rooted in hundreds, even thousands, of years teeming with times of loss and difficulty. Yet thanksgivings, both secular and religious, along with harvest festivals, days of fasting, and the conflation of all of the above, have all had at least one thing in common: gratitude.
Thanksgivings long predate the existence or even conceptualization of the United States. Civilizations of Indigenous peoples were offering thanks in their way tens of thousands of years before Romulus and Remus were even a twinkle in Mars’s eye. And in this, humankind’s seeking of gratitude and grace—whether or not it is sought with hands clasped at the table—remains relevant, even crucial, especially in the times that try our souls most.
In the midst of strife and suffering, when violence and hatred seem to dominate the news of the day, finding blessings, however big or small, can feel like an insurmountable, even Pollyanna, task. When we’re besieged by gloom and feeling alienated and frustrated, hopelessness and anger seem the only logical stances from which to formulate action. We kick into emotional survival mode. But it is precisely in those moments that seeking reasons to be grateful is most important and, as modern neuroscientific evidence continues to support, even healing and curative. Giving thanks when there seems little to be thankful for can offer moments of unity amid division, elicit empathy rather than foster estrangement, and perhaps promote a moment’s peace. Toiling to uncover that little speck of gold amid so much emotional dross, we commit to coming together even when we feel forces ripping us apart.
And that appeared to be, at least in part, some of the thinking in 1863 during the American Civil War.
There was, during that contentious time, a controversial president at the helm of a nation that had never been more divided. There was, too, a member of the press on a very particular mission. That powerful member of the media had a mind for years to recommit the country to a unifying celebration of giving thanks, one that might cement what had been for generations—eons, really—a tradition interpreted in many different ways.
This would not be, of course, the final say on the idea of thanksgiving, on these shores or beyond them. It was not about to whom this celebration would belong, beyond that it might be celebrated the same time each year in the same country. In truth, it was less about the proposed holiday than what it might stand for. Could stand for. And might continually strive to evolve into, once the smoke had cleared the battlefield and the plates had cleared the tables.
Over time, we in these oh so young United States have tweaked, teased, reinvented, and expanded both the practice of thanksgiving and the holiday itself to suit our culture, our circumstances, and our traditions, and often to cater to forces whose aims might not have been the noblest—or that were, at the very least, of questionable intent. Just as the myths of Romulus and Remus eventually gave way to the very true stories of Etruscans and Caesars, then so, too, can outdated histories gain a broadened perspective when a culture and a people grow in understanding and, ideally, empathy for those who might wish to gather together to give thanks with us.
And so to see how thanks can arise out of suffering and how the practice of giving thanks might still yet manage to imbue a holiday rife with its own suffering and injustices, it is useful and instructive to first look to the past before bringing this practice forward.
I do not start at “the beginning” of what it means to give thanks, or to create rites and feast days surrounding the practice of gratitude. That is the beginning of time. As a woman and a journalist seeking to reframe the timeless concept of gratitude within the very time-restricted holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States, I looked to another woman and journalist: that same dogged member of the media who pushed presidents to create a national day of thanks but, because of her gender, would never be permitted to cast a vote in the elections of her homeland. Still, she sought be heard. A writer whose work was unlikely to be widely read. Someone who knew loss. A person who had endured hardship. Through it all, though the world in which she lived either did not want to hear what she thought or gave her very prescribed ways in which she could communicate those thoughts, she carved out a voice.
She could not vote for the presidents of her day, but her impact on those leaders and the country they served would outlast all of their lives. She was a cultural bridge of sorts, from one president to the next, and from one version of the country to the next. She was anachronistic in her own way, stubbornly existing in one era, striving in some ways to reach the next, yet not quite fully standing in either. She resisted the limits placed on her by that which had come before and the established expectations of that which was to come. She strove, against many odds, to make things her own.
Thanksgiving is a concept going back thousands of years. Since becoming a national holiday in the United States, it has grown and changed, added some traditions and shirked others. It will continue to do so. In the spirit of one American’s time, in the spirit of that one American’s enthusiastic fight to raise her voice and elevate those of others, the table is set for change once more. Maybe it is time to make the case for “little- t” thanksgiving, one that might embody the best of who we are, one that would argue again for coming together respectfully, when it seems difficult or impossible to do so. Traditions, holidays, practices, celebrations, and more should embody—to quote that very president most closely associated with the annual feast—the “better angels of our nature.”
Gratitude, in any case, is not about a holiday; it is about a state of mind. Now, as ever, we need a way to say thanks. We have seen trying times. They have challenged and revealed us. They will again and again.
So before we go any further, we must first take a look back.
Read Denise’s “Official Guide to Zoomsgiving” here
From We Gather Together by Denise Kiernan. Used with the permission of Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.. Copyright © 2020 by Denise Kiernan.