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11 Things We Are Telling Our Children About Thanksgiving

Avidly is running on Wednesday today, instead of the holiday Thursday.  In the spirit of awkwardly political gratefulness, some Avidly folk came together to share thoughts about explaining the sometimes touchy rhetoric of Thanksgiving. Note that this list splits the difference between humor and earnestness, never settling easily either way, which is, we feel, appropriate. We welcome your thoughts, as clearly we all have lots, still to resolve.

1: Sarah M. Two years ago, my then four year old and I set out to decorate for Thanksgiving Dinner.  He colored identical faces on egg cartons while I made accessories for our characters: God’s head hovering over Anne Hutchinson, a horse’s leg for Mary Rowlandson, etc. My thought was: if it’s a pilgrim fantasy, let’s have this fantasy.  Unfortunately, Elliot’s favorite place setting was Thomas Granger.  I did not explain to Elliot why Thomas Granger was carrying a Turkey. I still feel that that can come later.

2: Liz. Sophronia came home last Friday asking what a “colony” was. I told her that it meant that the people of one country went and lived in another country and governed it without being asked to. “Like the English!” I said brightly. “You know, they came to Native American lands right here and told the Indians what to do. Then they took the land and killed a lot of them. And that’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving!” The irony was utterly lost on her (note: do not be ironic with young children and native Californians). She decided to build a spaceship out of Gladware for her Calico Critters, then put a brown blanket and a blue blanket on the floor and called it an unpopulated planet, colonizing it with Critters who each had a territory but did not fight any wars.

3: Chris H: Pie. No wait: PIES.

4: Dana.  Instead of talking about the historical fantasy, Zachary’s preschool is just concentrating on the meaning of the word itself. This weekend’s pre-holiday project was to make a diorama about their lives, depicting the people and things they were thankful for. Z’s was a heartbreakingly transcontinental map showing the 5 coastal cities where his best-loved people currently reside, along with a series of toy figures selected to resemble his favorites–a mixture of school friends and fantasy figures (Spider-Man, Chip and Dale) who were spatially distributed to correspond to their cartographic affiliations. As for me, I tell Zachary the truth: Thanksgiving is about eating too much and fighting with your relatives.

5: Kirsten. Luckily, our California public school goes light on on what that bawdy Liz Phair song calls “the ugly Pilgrim thing.” In my fantasy future, that specifically New England fable of origins will no longer be imposed on the rest of a country that no longer resembles it, and that has its own local first-contact stories. (Acorn mush, anyone?) Instead we talk about the figure of the cornucopia, of abundance. With whatever ad hoc family is assembled at the table, we pause on this day to consider the abundance we enjoy, to recognize that it is a gift and not an entitlement, and to vow that no one else should want.

6: Joe. Here in Claremont, at a retirement community called the Pilgrim Place, they have an decidedly non-ironic pre-Thanksgiving celebration, complete with Indian drum circles, people in costume (did the original pilgrims really dress like morticians?) and rides on parade-float cars converted to look like the Mayflower. As much as we are tiring of irony these days, some times it just gets you through the day.That said, it’s my favorite holiday of the year because it’s centered on family (mostly the ad-hoc kind, as Kirstin says), all-day cooking, food, and food-induced napping. De-nationalized, and de-contextualized, it’s basically a harvest festival for people who, generally, do no harvesting (a least of the literal variety).

7: Glenn. I tell Ezra nothing about Thanksgiving other than that we will be having a very long dinner with his grandparents. Is there anything else I should be telling him?

 8: Pam. My kids have had a total of one Thanksgiving in the US and I don’t think we had to explain anything except why some people in our extended family like putting marshmallows on sweet potatoes. For me it is and will always be the Jewish assimilation holiday par excellence. There’s no Christianity on display, you do something mildly ritualized that everyone else is doing at the same time. My best memories of it are my entire extended family stretched out on the floor of my aunt and uncle’s house groaning in pain and then heading back into the kitchen to pick at the turkey carcass.

9: Second Chris H. I keep trying to find a way to describe my sense of loss over stuffing. I mean stuffing that is actually stuffed into the bird (Pam’s mention of whose “carcass”  puts me in mind of the stuffing-cum-salmonella I mean–a dangerous substance, true, but a far, far better thing, more buttery and luscious, than the nominal “stuffing” I’ll put into the baking dish in two days). My daughter asked me last year why it’s called stuffing, and I am here to tell you that in my answer I transported her to a better, a more innocent, a purer, time.

10: Kyla. Thanksgiving: It’s when we Jews go out for dim sum.

11: Hester. I agree with Dana that “placate and appease” is a sad adult formula for Thanksgiving. But also, this: the kindergarten class newsletter for my daughter’s public elementary school featured a “Countdown to Christmas!” feature last year. I raised my concerns with the teacher (my daughter is part Jewish, but that’s not the point), and the teacher removed the countdown but told us that there would be a “unit” on “religions around the world” as part of the holiday season. A day or two later my daughter told me that her class had watched the Disney movie Pocahontas in order to learn about Thanksgiving. It was then that I realized that as an Intervening Parent I was far more offended by gross historical inaccuracies than by inappropriate religious content in public schools. But I had used my Parental Intervention opportunity of the week, I thought, and said nothing to the teacher about Pocahontas, which I regret. I told my daughter, though, about Pocahontas and the Johns Smith and Rolfe, as well as about the difference between the Jamestown colony’s mercantilism and the Plymouth’s colony religious separatism. She said “uh huh” and drew the following picture of Indians being “nis” [nice] to the Pilgrims, represented both by broken arrows of peace and by Pocahontas’s red lipstick.

Addendum photo: we visited Plymouth Plantation and the Wampanoag village to get another viewpoint, but became distracted to a fantastic degree by the historical reenactor at the dugout demonstration.
Happy Thanksgiving from Avidly: We hope your mashed potatoes will be warm, your cornucopia full, and your reenactors dug out.

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  1. Note also: I did not include Dan Braun’s thoughts on this topic, but I think they are very sage–basically, that there’s time to talk about “gratitude,” important in its own right, before you get bogged down in the smallpox blanket business.

  2. The Romans, I now see, left behind a recipe for stuffed dormouse:

    Glires: isicio porcino, item pulpis ex omni membro glirium trito, cum pipere, nucleis, lasere, liquamine farcies glires, et sutos in tegula positos mittesin furnum aut farsos in clibano coques.

    Translation: Is stuffed with a forcemeat of pork and small pieces of dormouse meat trimmings, all pounded with pepper, nuts, laser, broth. Put the dormouse thus stuffed in an earthen casserole, roast it in the oven, or boil it in the stock pot.

    Video of dozing, tryptophan-laced dormouse:

  3. Elliot was just talking to me about being excited for Thanksgiving dinner. “What do you want to eat?” I asked. (note that elliot likes to eat about six foods, only one of them thanksgiving normal). He said, “grapes!” I was like: “…grapes??” and thenk Kirsten Silva Gruesz, I realized: the cornucopia image! grapes obviously! Glad that he’s absorbing “grapes” rather than, or in adition too, Pilgrims. http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_Jkq9huyakCw/TOctP6Ak4qI/AAAAAAAAAI8/8vwhmVtoum8/s1600/cornucopia.jpg


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