I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from November 2017, when I wrote about Thanksgiving. Every writer has a Thanksgiving staple somewhere in their archives. Here is mine.
Thanksgiving was never a major holiday in our family. My grandfather, my mom’s dad, died suddenly two days before Thanksgiving when I was 12 years old, and after that, we just never really made a big deal out of Thanksgiving. We’d go over to my dad’s side of the family for the holiday, and while they’re all great, my dad has eight brothers and sisters all with multiple children each: It was less “family coming together” and more “dozens of people who haven’t seen or much thought about each other since the last Thanksgiving eating cold turkey off paper plates in the garage and complaining about Lou Henson.” It was perfectly fine — it’s better than fighting about politics — but it never much resembled all the Thanksgivings I saw on television. My mother usually worked in the ER on Thanksgiving because it meant she would get Christmas off. Christmas was a much bigger deal.
I took that cue and didn’t care much about it myself. When I lived in New York, I never came home for Thanksgiving: Typically, I’d either go to a girlfriend’s family’s place for Thanksgiving or just drink with other orphans stranded in NYC for the long weekend. I had a tradition for a while that I’d go see a movie by myself on Thanksgiving night. I remember seeing Alexander ironically at the Union Square 14 in 2004, though today, man, does that irony seem awfully stupid and sad.
It wasn’t until my wife and I had our first son that I at last had a Thanksgiving tradition of my own. We were still out in New York, but we wanted to make sure her mom got to see her grandson over Thanksgiving because we had typically gone to Mattoon for Christmas. We all traveled to Columbus, Georgia, along with my brother-in-law and his family, and packed into my mother-in-law’s home. It was lovely having everyone together, but it was … crowded. So my mother-in-law decided that, henceforth, we would rent cabins in Callaway Gardens, Georgia, right on the Alabama-Georgia border (I’ve been seeing ads for Doug Jones all week), and we would just spend Thanksgiving in the woods.
It was an excellent choice. Our Thanksgivings growing up were slothful affairs, people stuffing themselves sick and passing out in the nearest available open space. (Usually atop a stray cousin.) Now, they are active, busy, outdoors-y affairs: We actually do shit. Every year — and it’s much easier now that we live in Georgia — we come down here a couple of days before Thanksgiving and pack in as much as we can. We ride bikes. We go for long brisk runs around the lake. We all jump through ropes courses. We send the kids rattling around bounce castles. The night before Thanksgiving, we all take one of those cheesy, wonderful Fantasy in Lights trolley rides where you look at holiday lights that haven’t been updated since the mid-70s and are all the better for it. We do the same thing ever year, a group of eight (sometimes nine) in two cabins, running ourselves ragged, sleeping like the dead. On Saturday morning, we leave and go to the Georgia-Georgia Tech game, either in Atlanta or back in Athens. The only thing that ever changes is whether or not the Illini are in one of those late-night college basketball tournaments.
It’s all I’ve ever wanted from Thanksgiving. It’s consistent, it’s constant, and it’s ours. We’ll be able to watch the kids grow older each year — we’ve already noticed how much easier the youngest is now that there are no diapers and he can hang with his older cousins unchaperoned — and then one year, they’ll all be teenagers and they won’t want to be around us at all. (That’s when, I assume, we’ll recapture the sloth of my youth.) It is a place we can all go to every year to make sure we all see one another. It is what Thanksgiving is supposed to be. It is … a tradition.
I know that Thanksgiving is a celebration of something that was initially quite ugly, and I know that there are some people who in recent years have reacted to that initial ugliness by ignoring the holiday all together. I understand the concept, I suppose, but find the political statement unnecessary and a little sanctimonious. Yes: I find the pilgrim and Native American costumes unnerving and bad. Yes: Thanksgiving is one of those American inventions that we all believe to be much more laudatory and altruistic than it actually is. But everything about America is like that. We’re always kidding ourselves about just about everything that built this country. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to have an excuse to get together. And it doesn’t mean you can’t still love this place. In fact, that love is a reason to constantly strive to make it better. We can acknowledge the past, we can try to correct the past, we can try to make the future better. That doesn’t mean you can’t carve out a place in this world that is good, and make it your own. I finally have a Thanksgiving tradition to call my own. I’ll never let it go.