I was surprised to learn that Thanksgiving is rooted in American civil religious tradition, as I have always interpreted the holiday as a completely secular one. Backtracking to Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863, he states:
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God…[and this day is] a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”
Thanksgiving is celebrated throughout America and has shifted away from a day specifically devoted to giving thanks to God. What does hold true, just as much today as it did centuries ago, is that Thanksgiving is a day of “political-religious ritual of nationality” and solidarity (Siskind, 1992).
“Thanksgiving [has] become associated with homecoming…[r]eturning home for Thanksgiving [is] both a metaphor and a ritual performance of solidarity, renewing or validating family ties” (Siskind, 1992). As one of the approximate 46 million projected to travel for this holiday, I was unsure of what justifies this long, draining “pilgrimage,” all for only one meal. Perhaps I am indifferent because traditional Thanksgiving foods have never thrilled me? Even more so, I might have just been bitter because all of these foods that appear to lack any gastronomic attachment with my family, still reside at the table year after year.
As this momentous meal approaches, I thought I would task myself with answering two questions: (1) how is the Thanksgiving table a space with religious significance, and (2) what in fact does the Thanksgiving meal represent?
It is rare, especially as a college student, to sit at a nicely set dining room table in a leisurely atmosphere. Thanksgiving is focused around the communal meal that is celebrated strictly at the table, which sets it apart from most religious holidays. The Thanksgiving table is a place of vulnerability that provides an intermediated space to share and pass down dishes, traditions, stories, and memories. Wendell Berry reminisced about associations that represented food since ancient times—“mutual care, generosity, neighborliness, festivity, communal joy, [and] religious ceremony.” Thanksgiving is an exception; I argue that these representations of food are very much alive at the Thanksgiving table. I contend that these meals have become sacred because modern culture has parted from the representations of food Berry nostalgically described as once inhabiting our culture.
Specifically, the dinner table and religious ceremonies offer a strong relationship. Both include a community of people gathering for the sake of tradition and celebration. Just as people devote time away from their busy lives to attend religious ceremonies, the same urgency is given for the gathering at the Thanksgiving table—a ritual devoted to the ceremonial community that surrounds the table. The table, in this setting, becomes sacred.
The inclusivity of the Thanksgiving meal is powerful. The slow and leisurely pace at which the food and experience is digested creates a foundation to learn about other people’s food traditions, and the stories which special, memory-triggering dishes evoke. As a holiday celebrated only in America, Thanksgiving creates national solidarity and most people celebrate it by cooking, eating with family, and sitting around a table set with fine china and a gleaming, robust turkey. Typically, the main Thanksgiving staples (i.e. turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing) are not replaced by culturally specific foods. Rather, these dishes are served in addition (Colman, 2008). Thus, the meal acts to unite us as a nation, inclusive of the multiethnic and multiregional adaptations and additions to the Thanksgiving menu. Perhaps this leads to larger implications that this meal ought to represent. Perhaps the sacredness of this meal, inclusive of the people, dishes, and community should be how we welcome, adopt, and incorporate the increasingly diverse population of Americans, as our classmates, colleagues, neighbors, citizens and dinner guests.
The Thanksgiving meal represents the opportunity that communal meals create, as a culturally binding and inclusive space that initiates bonds and a shared sense of community. So how come certain dishes are served every year: for the purpose of maintaining tradition. My family holds on to these traditional dishes because of the cultural, rather than gastronomic significance they hold. This meal helps unite and uphold the sacred and ritualized American table—comprised of family, friends, and for some, God.