Give Thanks & Stuff Thyself

Playing cards is a Thanksgiving tradition in some households. (Photo courtesy of

Two years ago, after The Iowa Source printed my “Christmas Is for Moping” article, several concerned parties privately sidled up to me to ask if I was okay. They meant well, but I think looking at the shadow side of Christmas was uncomfortable for some folks.

I believe it’s valuable to question what exactly we are celebrating when our goverment has given us a day off to do it. And valuable to acknowledge that so many of our nationally observed holidays aren’t relatable to all citizens in this nation.

Some occasions can be downright painful. I mean, look at the Columbus Day kerfuffle. Turns out mister Christopher was the ultimate douchebag, and that’s putting it mildly. Yet his name is still printed on our calendars.

Now it’s time for Thanksgiving.

Oh no! There she goes again, stirring the pot! Don’t take a shart on my Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving!

Everything we thought we knew about the History of Our Great Nation is at last getting a scrupulous second look, and for good reason. Stories we were taught in grade school were often stand-ins for the truth, written from the perspectives of white people for white people. Many aspects of the “original” Thanksgiving tale that we were fed—you know, the “Native Americans and the Pilgrims sat down to a fabulous welcome-wagon style, super-chill dinner party together in the name of generous friendship” tale—were just that. Tales. It’s speculated that even Abraham Lincoln didn’t have the whole truth when he took a stab at fostering unity across enemy camps during the Civil War by declaring Thanksgiving a holiday. Or that he did have his facts straight but was just that desperate.

Yet out of the myth of bloodless colonialism and a mucked-up Thanksgiving his-story, our prized November holiday remains a shining beacon of overpriced flights, football hysteria, family fall-outs, and fatty indulgence. Man, do I sound bitter about Thanksgiving? I’m really not.

If I distill the word down to its etymological roots, laying aside for a moment its fabricated historical context, I am left with “the giving of thanks.” It gets real simple. Reflective. And personal. Maybe closer to what prayerful English folks had been celebrating as “Thanksgiving” long before Plymouth Rock was a thing. Sans the fasting. Yeah, you heard me. European Thanksgiving was originally a day of fasting. Ohhh, snap!

Setting aside time to reflect on your blessings—however meager—is a pretty solid idea. And taking things for granted is a good habit to break, even if it’s only for one day a year.

Can we acknowledge this holiday’s foundational untruths and still enjoy it? I don’t have an answer for everyone. Just an admission that I do. I do enjoy it.

How do I not love a day of savory stuffing and pies, the gravel-road walks in sleepy late-afternoon light? Tail wagging, card dealing, and leftovers in the microwave. And if we’re lucky, we get to spend the night at Grandma’s, which means carom boards, barn kittens, and breakfast with bacon.

Maybe next year I’ll spend the day in repentant prayer. But this year, I shall not be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, partially because this year I remain hopeful that my family’s own Thanksgiving traditions—held together around the edges with unbridled card playing—can resume, scorepad in hand. The kitchen table between mealtimes is where the real magic happens—it’s where we take turns tasting sweet victory and bitter defeat. And where grandchildren, nieces, and nephews are treated to a smorgasbord of terrible jokes, riotous imitations, and borderline dirty words. Words that I learned from my grandparents at the Thanksgiving card table and managed never to repeat in school. The circle of trust continues.

And I love that there are so many variations of this bizarre holiday. The sports fanatacism version. The volunteer at the local soup kitchen version. The visit relatives you haven’t seen in eons version. I even know of a couple who invites their guests outdoors for a post-dinner plunge in the back pond. And they do it, God love ’em! Every year they do it!

And I guess if we all got one thing right over the years, it’s the “giving” part. I mean, do you know how hard it is to cook a turkey? It’s a bleepin’ pain in the bleep! The fact that women and men do it for their families annually is a true gesture of love, as far as I can tell. Generation by generation, many of us have the privilege and pleasure of penning our own irrevocable holiday histories.

I leave you with this. Still-conflicting evidence tells us that people of the Wampanoag Nation and a boatload of English colonists cautiously coexisted for a short time near Plymouth, Massachussetts. And our best evidence tells us there was a decent harvest. And a mutual fear of survival. And each came to the proverbial but probably not literal table with their own traditions and ceremonies that involved giving thanks and recognizing greater spirit.

But did they bust out the cards after dinner? Did they quote terrible, terrible movies? Did they eat mixed nuts, poke fun at each other, and laugh so hard they wet themselves?

I wish it had been so.

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!