Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007: Rantings and Reflections from an Expatriate

This year I'll be celebrating my first ever Thanksgiving outside the US. I think I've been outside the US on this date at least 6 or 7 times.

Many students and faculty will be meeting on campus Thursday for our 1st (hopefully annual) Thanksgiving potluck dinner. On Sunday, my wife and I, with another Danish/American mixed (or mixed up) family will have a Turkey dinner here in Nyborg.

I've honestly been a bit cynical these last years over anything remotely consumeristic or overtly corporate sponsored. Yet many of these traditions I grew up with, and when I'm honest with myself I miss them, well some of them anyways. I can do without the Macy's Day Parade, but I doubt I'd deprive my son of it. Its a major spectacle, (3 million in attendance and 50 million TV viewers) which marks the beginning of most "ordinary folks" Thanksgiving morning. The women would start early with prepping of food, the men and boys would go outside and throw the football around, and kids would sit in front of the TV, watching that damned parade. As a young boy I fondly remember going nuts over the Snoopy float. Snoopy was by far my favorite cartoon character. Snoopy was just cool. I didn't realize I was being predisposed to purchase Met Life Insurance.

The annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game is another over-hyped, over-produced, celebration of consumption. It's also some pretty good football (not soccer). If the Boyz win this game they'll be 10-1! Unfortunately, no Danish channel will be broadcasting the game. I'll also miss the famous coach and sportscaster John Madden present the official NFL Thanksgiving Turducken. A Turducken is "a partially de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck, which itself is stuffed with a small de-boned chicken."

Another longstanding tradition is the Presidential pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey. The photo to the right is President Truman giving the "first ever presidential pardon of a Turkey." This photo is taken from the official White House web site, which also provides a gallery of photos from past administrations titled, The Annual Pardoning of the Thanksgiving Turkey. Never mind that the Truman Presidential Library claims that they have no record of Truman ever granting a Thanksgiving pardon, or that this photo is of a Christmas turkey presented on December 15, 1947. Apparently George Bush didn't personally start this falsehood. The White House is merely repeating a media produced national myth as it were fact.

The Library's staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency. Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table. In any event, the Library has been unable to determine when the tradition of pardoning the turkey actually began.

National Geographic has a 2001 piece (if you really want to waste your time), Where Do Turkeys Go After Being Pardoned by the President? I generally enjoy National Geographic but this spectacle is just too much.

There are actually two turkeys that receive the pardon. An alternate is always chosen in case the first one dies before it's been pardoned. In 2001, they were named Liberty and Freedom. This year the selected names are; May and Flower, you know, after the Mayflower ship which brought the early puritan settlers to Plymouth Rock. May and Flower, not very original. But it's interesting to note that even the Turkeys were co-opted into the "War on Terror" message campaign in those few months after 9/11. If we read turkeys as tea leaves what does this years naming suggest?

I guess my biggest gripe about Thanksgiving is the day after, known as "Black Friday." It's one of the busiest shopping days of the year, with many stores opening as early as 5am. I especially hated the "holiday" shopping season as I worked retail all through college. I witnessed first hand a truly "National Hysteria." Instead of looking in from the outside like I do now, I felt more like a trapped goldfish looking from the inside out, out into the wide world of consumption chaos. It was in those years that I came to appreciate "our postmodern condition" and began to understand what Baudrillard meant by "the desert of the real." I can't see how the experience is in any conceivable way gratifying for the shopping masses either. The traffic everywhere is horrendous and the crowds are down right frightening to borderline violent at times. Most shopping malls hire off-duty police officers to police the parking garages and mall corridors. This means there probably isn't a cop in the land at home on Friday. It's like coordinated chaos. The Department of Homeland Security could learn a thing or two from municipal government management of holiday shopping logistics. This year, just about everyone will give thanks to consumption. Even the national turkeys are joining the consumer celebration as they won't be retiring to a little farm in Virginia this year but traveling to Disney World instead.

Tomorrow I'll be on campus, at the Center for American Studies, enjoying a bit of camaraderie with mostly Danish scholars of American society. I won't be the only American however, and many of the Danes have lived and worked in the States so there is an appreciation for what this thing is all about. I'm also looking forward to Sunday. We just got news that our host friends are expecting another child. So there is much more to celebrate. You see, above it all, beyond commercialization and consumption, after the historical revisionism and media spectacles, past the silliness of hokey traditions I was raised to believe that Thanksgiving was a day to give thanks. I don't doubt that most Americans still believe that. Millions volunteer their time and money every year providing Thanksgiving meals to the poor and homeless. More families in America come together for Thanksgiving than any other holiday, including Christmas. I do have much to give thanks for. My life is fairly decent and I've been blessed with a wonderful wife and beautiful baby boy.

I'm quite content here in Denmark but I do miss home from time to time, especially this time of year, spectacle and all. My two brothers will be driving their families down from Austin to Corpus Christi to see our mother. The weather will be warm and humid. They'll eat Turkey and Tamales, (a South Texas Thanksgiving tradition) until they nearly pass out. The kids will watch the Parade on TV and the boys will watch football. Mom will brave the streets on Friday and find her way to the "biggest sales of the year." I'll be here, thinking of them all.