We recognize Thanksgiving as a time to give thanks. Family or friends gather to prepare a large feast and spend time together. It’s as American as it gets.
Over the years, we have fictionalized many aspects of the story. It’s unlikely that the Native Americans and the Pilgrims celebrated together, nor did they eat a turkey [source]. However, the origins are still clear.
Thanksgiving began as a holiday to celebrate the harvest. After a full growing season, food was in full supply. This harvest would feed the colony through winter and the next growing season.
For an agrarian society, this was their livelihood. They lived year-to-year with the uncertainty of the next year’s harvest and food source. Will there be a drought next year? Will we survive?
The harvest festival celebrated another year of living. Reaching such a milestone, it makes perfect sense to celebrate a food surplus with a massive feast. Enjoy one amazing, fresh meal now at the cost of a day’s rations of year-old preserved food in the future. It’s an easy choice - especially since the future is so uncertain.
The modern world is so different. The global food supply chain is a fine-tuned machine. Food is plenty and multiple supermarkets are nearby. Their shelves only go empty when hurricanes or traumatic events occur.
We also eat a lot better. Our average meals feature fresh produce and a wide variety of dishes. We gorge ourselves with feasts on a regular basis. We have no fear of going hungry.
So what is Thanksgiving now? There is no longer a need to celebrate the harvest. It can still be a time to reflect and give thanks, but the feast has no meaning. Thanksgiving is an indulgence, just because we are American and we can do it.
This year, I’m going to try something different. I will fast for the day before Thanksgiving until the feast is served. I am not able to simulate the future uncertainty that the Pilgrims faced, but this will give more meaning to the meal. It will make it more obvious that I do have a lot to be thankful for.