Thanksgiving used to be one of my favorite holidays. I can say that because I’m old enough to remember a time when it was a holiday free of commercial excess. Christmas decorations and holiday sales wouldn’t start for another week or so after Thanksgiving. It was just a time for all of the family to gather at my grandparent’s house for great cooking and family togetherness.
Two years ago I discovered through some genealogical research that I am one of the million+ Americans who can say they are a descendent of the original Plymouth Colony. As it turns out, I am related by blood to two passengers on the Mayflower on my mother’s side (Edward Winslow and William Brewster), and my father is also related to a different Mayflower passenger (Stephen Hopkins). Not that I think that makes me any better than any other American. I also have some Native American blood in me, but I know less about that (there were multiple tribes, and that it was more than six generations ago is the extent of what I know about my Native American ancestry).
This new knowlege, coupled with my time spent on Cape Cod in the very spot where the Pilgrims first landed on American soil (before Plymouth Rock) means I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be American (and what it should mean), and what gratitude is, and the things for which I am truly thankful.
Thanksgiving is of course, also a holiday wreathed in tradition. And while I know that it is more likely that the Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted on fish and lobster than turkey and pumpkin pie, I just can’t give up my roasted turkey dinner, jellied cranberry sauce, stuffing and gravy. The year I lived in Scotland (where they have no Thanksgiving) was really difficult… even though my hosts tried to make it up to me by having roast chicken that night. (Not the same, but thanks anyway.)
But I disdain that the traditions that actually meant something have given way to false traditions like camping out at the Big Box store to catch the big sale at midnight, and watching football all afternoon between trips to the buffet table. I mean, people have actually been trampled to death, rushing to get the best deals on some crap made for cheap in China. Gone is any sense of gratitude or Providence. The feeling of being thankful for what we DO have, despite how little it may be, has almost been extinguished in my view of popular American culture. One has to look no further than your Facebook news feed, Twitter, or the nearest checkout line to see ample evidence of Entitlement.
But looking back at history for a moment, the Pilgrims had a large sense of entitlement as well. In that first winter on Cape Cod (William Bradford and the rest of the Mayflower crew and passengers landed on Cape Cod on November 11, 1620 and stayed for about six weeks before sailing on to found Plymouth colony), the surviving Mayflower passengers helped themselves to food the Native Americans themselves had stored up to survive the winter, and then they (the Pilgrims) thanked God for providing for them. To be fair, the Pilgrims did eventually pay the Indians back for their theft… two years later. But that was more about keeping the peace than gratitude.
But here I don’t mean “entitlement” in the political hot-button-topic sense. I don’t have to look very far in my own neighborhood to find evidence of people “gaming the system” to get benefits that shouldn’t be theirs… and certainly that kind of fraud should be stopped. I’m talking about the sense of entitlement that causes people to behave selfishly and rudely–without cause or reason–in public, and to members of their own community. It makes me sick to see it. Yesterday someone literally ran me off a narrow path at the market, causing me to step into several inches of wet mud, rather than step aside for half a second to let me pass. (That’s not my sense of entitlement… I was on the narrow part of the path before she came onto it.) And anyone who’s lived in Philadelphia (home of Brotherly Love, don’t forget) can attest to the annoyance of getting stuck in traffic on a street that is blocked by a car stopped in the middle of the street with nobody in it, when plenty of parking is available on the side of the street. Or the bloodshed that occurs each winter over shoveled-out parking spaces. (Yes, people do that here.)
The only thing I truly feel entitled to are my civil rights, which, for me and other gay/lesbian people is not guaranteed by any means. Unless I move to one of six states or DC, I cannot legally marry. In more than half of the United States, it is absolutely legal to fire me from my job for no other reason than because I am gay. And yet, there are still places on this planet where I might be tortured and put to death for being gay.
In spite of all of this, I am truly grateful to be living in a time where change is possible. For years I have wondered how bad things have to get before the American people revolt. Although I am dubious that the revolution happening now will survive the winter or have much lasting impact, I do have hope. I am grateful to have access to information, the internet, and communications. I am thankful for my own skills and talents, and the education that provided them. And I am thankful to have a family that loves and supports me when necessary, and friends that do the same.
But being thankful for these things does not mean that I do not want for more. I will always wish for a better lifestyle for me and those I love. I will always hope for equality for all individuals–not just Americans, and not just white Americans, and not just white American men. And I hope that we, as a community of people, recognize that our Founding Fathers knew what they were doing. The constitution which we live under was crafted specifically to include the right to peaceful protest, to dissent, and freedom FROM religion and tyranny as well as freedom OF religion. And for these things I am most grateful.
Thank you for taking the time to read my essay. I hope it gives you pause, to think about the things that you are most grateful for in your own life. Now, enjoy your turkey and pie, and best of luck getting through the rest of the holidays with your sanity intact!