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Saturday, November 04, 2006

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A Pilgrim's Progress

Thanksgiving is coming. I can tell, because I am spending hours and hours on ebay shopping for a new me. This new me is the sort of person whose home will not only be clean and sparkling come the 23rd of November, but whose table will be so splendidly adorned with just the right vintage set of dishes--won at the last minute for a mere 1.99--as to draw the eye completely away from the unpainted trim, the ratty second-hand furnishings, the scribbled-on walls, the overhead lighting fixture with its several burnt out bulbs, and the ballpoint pen jammed under the dimmer switch to keep the rest lit.

Another reliable harbinger of the season is the proliferation of glossy four-color sales flyers in my mailbox, assuring me it will take much, much more than a few pieces of Franciscan or Stangl pottery to make me suitably thankful this year. It will take a moving truck of new furniture, stainless steel appliances, embroidered sweaters for all of us, and --this was in the Sam's Club flyer today--a Cessna Citation jet for $2,734,000 (I bet I can get it $500,000 cheaper on ebay).

This uniquely American holiday serves as a measure of my own assimilation into this culture. What I knew about it from growing up in Newfoundland was that it comes a month or so after the Canadian thanksgiving weekend, and that it often falls on my birthday, as it will this year. I didn't know then that the Canadian version (note my usage of the "small t") is quite a pallid imitation of the original. I guess someone noticed that our neighbors to the south were getting to feast on turkey and pies and thought we ought to follow suit, only, let's do it in October, so that we will have room for turkey and pies again on Christmas. Anything for a long weekend. I believe this is what keeps Canada in the Commonwealth. Hate to lose the Queen's birthday.

Without getting into a long exegesis of British colonialism and its aftermath, I will just point out the pointlessness of a Newfoundlander adopting a American custom adopted by Canada, our reluctantly adopted government. Take my word for it, a lot was lost in translation.

My first impression of the real thing was, that's a hell of a lot of food. That was a common refrain from me that first year, going right back to my very first meal on American soil, in a Wendy's in Laredo. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I'd had six months of supersizing, but I was still shocked. The turkey, gravy and pumpkin pie were familiar, but I was out of my depth after that. In addition to pumpkin, there was apple, chocolate and pecan pie. Instead of stuffing, there was an enormous pan of cornbread dressing, which had chicken baked into it, and made a main dish by itself. There was the marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole and the french-fried onion-topped green bean casserole, both of which were totally alien to me. It seemed excessive, and redundant. Why the big feast and get-together, only to have to pull off a reprise at Christmas?

I didn't get it.

I was so focussed on the food, it took me a couple more years to become aware of the sentiment attached to Thanksgiving. This doesn't come over in the Canadian translation at all. Here in America, people practically kill themselves trying to get home for the holiday. In Canada, you have a big dinner with whoever happens to be around, and since it is a long weekend, your plans might involve travel, but it's not the emotional imperative it is in the States.

About five or six years into my residency, I became initiated in the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping custom, where people practically kill themselves and each other trying to get into Target before dawn, to catch the earlybird special. One thing I have particularly come to like about Thanksgiving is that it is, in and of itself, singularly uncommercial. Nobody gives gifts, or even cards. It is, I believe, the only day on which shops do not open. It is the one pause in the otherwise relentless carousel of commercialism in this country. And if you happen to be at Target at six the next morning, you will experience first hand the release of 24 hours worth of pent-up American consumerism. It is not for the faint of heart. Still, there is a carnival vibe to it that I dig, in the same way I wrote about taking in the state fair a couple of weeks back. I do most of my Christmas shopping online or at a neigborhood toy store these days, but for several years running I had fun hitting the stores with the rest of the mob, flyers and list in hand.

I was enjoying the spectacle, but I was still looking down my nose at the silly, unrestrained Americans who were putting up Christmas decorations and wrapping presents a whole month too soon.

Gradually, I came to realize that Thanksgiving isn't some kind of premature cultural ejaculation. It's the beginning of Christmas, with the whole season culminating on Christmas Day. Where I grew up, Christmas doesn't get going until Christmas week, and then we keep it going through New Year's and--for the purists--until the Ephiphany on January 6th (or as we call it on the island, Old Christmas Day). Also, in my native tradition, Christmas Day is the Big Show. That's when you brave blizzards to get across the country to your family. That's when we do all the eating and making merry. Christmas Day in America is a celebration, to be sure, but it's more for the kids. Even the dinner menu is different. Whereas at home turkey or goose would be mandatory, here we are more likely to have prime rib. It's a completely different paradigm.

It's taken me a while to find a middle ground. It helps that I have become an Episcopalian (American for Anglican), because it means I try to observe Advent. For the benefit of the rest of you godless heathens, Advent is by definition a time of waiting; of holding back and staying quiet. It's roots, like those of Christmas, are in pre-Christian northern European traditions. It is about yielding to the darkest time of the year, and it is starkly at odds with the secular culture, which doesn't care much for darkness or quiet, and which has Christmas decorations on the store shelves the day after Halloween.

It creates an interesting tension. On the one hand, I like the waiting. On the other, I hate to miss out on the festivities. So I pick and choose between traditions. I have come to love Thanksgiving more than nearly any other holiday. And even though it is almost always just the five of us, I bake pies and cornbread chicken dressing and spread the table as best as I am able. Although the house is never clean and sparkling, and I never find that perfect homemaker-me, on ebay or anywhere else, my mother sends flowers and they cover a multitude of sins. We drive to a tree farm like everyone else on Thanksgiving weekend, and we tag a tree and pay for it, but it stays in the ground until we come back for it mid-December. Lights go up on December 1st, and the creche comes out, empty, to be populated gradually by sheep and cows and Mary and Joseph and everyone else but the baby, until Christmas. The advent wreath comes out, and I light candles and pray the prayers over it. We go to mass on Christmas Eve and stay in our pyjamas until dinnertime the next day. The tree comes down in time for our New Year's party, but I keep a bough to toss on the bonfire at the church on Ephiphany.

It has become a bit of this and a bit of that. Like my table setting. Like me.

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Blogger Jule Ann said...

As a fellow Canadian in America, I empathized with a lot of this post. Although I was raised by an American in Canada, so I grew up with at least a taste of Thanksgiving feastliness. Loved your bit about pent up American consumerism! I expect to be working at Starbucks at about 3 am on Black Friday, serving caffeinated beverages to the hordes of early bird shoppers.

1:47 PM  
Blogger K. said...

3 am??? Those are some hardcore earlybirds.

7:51 PM  
Blogger JK said...

Beautiful writing, made me even more thankful today, even after stuffing myself so full I was ready to put the boys in bed at 6 and park myself on the couch all evening... but I am thankful for appreciation of tradition and your writing.
p.s saw ads for stores opening at 12:01am tonight!!!!

10:54 PM  
Blogger Steve Portigal said...

My mom emailed me this article today; I'm also a Canadian in the US, and my birthday is November 25. I have long marveled over some of the same Thanksgiving contrasts (which definitely took a few years to grasp) and the insecurities generated by the unavailability of most of our friends for any birthday observations...

Great piece!

1:05 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Thanks, Steve! And Happy Birthday!

10:38 PM  
Blogger Belinda said...

This is beautiful, Happy Birthday, and now I must dash, for we are running late in our manic feast preparations.

Happy Thanksgiving!

10:03 AM  

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