For the last few years I’ve enjoyed revisiting this Thanksgiving piece by Christopher Hitchens. I looked for the link but it seems now to be entombed somewhere deep in the sepulchral bowels of the Wall Street Journal paywall. So I’m just reprinting the whole thing. Rupert Murdoch won’t mind. Seems a giving sort of fellow….
Anyway I hope everybody enjoys their delicious "feathered, flapping, gobbling and flightless product of evolution" this afternoon. And thanks for reading.
‘The Turkey Has Landed’
By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
WSJ; November 23, 2005; Page A16
Concerning Thanksgiving, that most distinctive and unique of all American holidays, there need be no resentment and no recrimination. Likewise, there need be no wearisome present-giving, no order of divine service, and no obligation to the dead. This holiday is like a free gift, or even (profane though the concept may be to some readers) a free lunch — and a very big and handsome one at that. This is the festival on which one hears that distinct and generous American voice: the one that says "why not?" Family values are certainly involved, but even those with no family will still be invited, or will invite. The doors are not exactly left open as for a Passover Seder, yet who would not be ashamed to think of a neighbor who was excluded or forgotten on such a national day?
Immigrants like me tend to mention it as their favorite. And this is paradoxical, perhaps, since it was tentative and yet ambitious immigrants who haltingly began the tradition. But these were immigrants to the Americas, not to the United States.
You can have a decent quarrel about the poor return that Native Americans received for their kindness in leading Puritans to find corn and turkeys in the course of a harsh winter. You may find yourself embroiled, as on Columbus Day, with those who detest the conquistadores or who did not get here by way of Plymouth Rock or Ellis Island. ("Not for us it isn’t," as the receptionist at Louis Farrakhan’s Final Call once glacially told me, after I had pointed out that her boss had desired me to telephone that very day.) Even Halloween is fraught, with undertones of human sacrifice and Protestant ascendancy. But Thanksgiving really comes from the time when the USA had replaced the squabbling confessional colonists, and is fine, and all-American, too.
As with so many fine things, it results from the granite jaw and the unhypocritical speech of Abraham Lincoln. It seemed to him, as it must have seemed in his composition of the Gettysburg Address, that there ought to be one day that belonged exclusively to all free citizens of a democratic republic. It need not trouble us that he spoke in April and named a regular calendar day at the end of November, any more than it need trouble us that he mentioned "God" but specified no particular religion. No nation can be without a day of its own, and who but a demagogue or a sentimentalist would have appointed a simulacrum of Easter or Passover? The Union had just been preserved from every kind of hazard and fanaticism: Just be grateful. If there were to be any ceremonial or devotional moment at Thanksgiving, and I am sure that I wish that there were not, it still might not kill the spirit of the thing if Lincoln’s Second Inaugural were to be read aloud, or at least printed on a few placemats.
Any attempt at further grandiosity would fail. To remember the terrible war that saved the Union, or the Winthropian fundamentalism about that "city on a hill," would be too strenuous. And there are other days, in any case, on which one may celebrate or commemorate these things. I myself always concentrate on the dry wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, who once proposed that the turkey instead of the eagle should be the American national bird. After all, as he noted, the eagle is an inedible and arrogant predator whereas the turkey is harmless to others, nutritious, thrifty, industrious and profuse. Pausing only to think of the variable slogans here ("Where Turkeys Dare"; "The Turkey Has Landed"; "On Wings of Turkeys" and, by a stretch, "Legal Turkeys") I marvel to think that a nation so potentially strong could have had a Founding Father who was so irreverent. I also wish that I liked turkey. But there is always stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy — to be eked out by pumpkin pie, which I also wish I could pretend to relish.
Indeed, it is the sheer modesty of the occasion that partly recommends it. Everybody knows what’s coming. Nobody acts as if caviar and venison are about to be served, rammed home by syllabub and fine Madeira. The whole point is that one forces down, at an odd hour of the afternoon, the sort of food that even the least discriminating diner in a restaurant would never order by choice. Perhaps false modesty is better than no modesty at all.
Never mind all that. I am quite sure (indeed, I know) that many a Thanksgiving table is set with vegetarian delights for all the family. And never mind if you think that Norman Rockwell is a great cornball as well as a considerable painter. Many people all over the world, including many members of my own great profession of journalism, almost make their livings by describing the United States as a predatory and taloned bird, swooping down on the humble dinners of others. And of course, no country would really wish to represent itself on its own coinage and emblems as a feathered, flapping, gobbling and flightless product of evolution. Still and all, I have become one of those to whom Thanksgiving is a festival to be welcomed, and not dreaded. I once grabbed a plate of what was quite possibly turkey, but which certainly involved processed cranberry and pumpkin, in a U.S. Army position in the desert on the frontier of Iraq. It was the worst meal — by far the worst meal — I have ever eaten. But in all directions from the chow-hall, I could see Americans of every conceivable stripe and confession, cheerfully asserting their connection, in awful heat, with a fall of long ago. And this in a holiday that in no way could divide them. May this always be so, and may one give some modest thanks for it.