This is the first year I won’t, as a US expat living in the UK, be serving turkey for Thanksgiving, which I have celebrated faithfully in the traditional way for each of the 25+ years I have lived in the UK. But with the Covid lockdown, family gatherings aren’t happening – and anyway, who wants to cook a big turkey just for two?
So this Thanksgiving night, we are simply polishing off a moussaka I made earlier in the week. I know other US friends and family will likewise be giving the traditional turkey roast a miss, whether due to Covid or the ongoing economic crisis – at least it’s good news for turkeys everywhere!
But even where traditional festivities may be lacking, the main point for rejoicing – that is, for me personally, and at least circa six million of my fellow Americans – is that after four years of turmoil, racism and disgust, we are finally about to lose the perma-bronzed turkey in the White House. And to that most of us can say a heartfelt Amen!
With President-elect Joe Biden rapidly filling his cabinet with some forward-thinking and impressive appointments, and his affirmed commitment to addressing urgently the twin threats of Covid and climate change, we can at least feel some hope for moving forward in addressing these in 2021, even while the gloom persists as numbers of Covid cases continue to rise in the US (roughly 12.9 million cases, with 262,831 deaths recorded thus far).
This prompts some thoughts about how the present and following generations of Americans will come to view the past four years of Trump’s reign. A proud and ego-driven Trump now appears to be spiralling into a stupendous fall as his increasingly ludicrous claims of voter fraud fail to find any fruition.
In spectacular bad-loser fashion, Trump has instead eschewed the spotlight, holing himself up in the White House and making only rare appearances to negligible events, and generally appearing to be only a shell of his former bombastic self. He almost begins to acquire the patina of a tragic hero; one wonders what Shakespeare, was he around today, would have made of this – in the hands of a skilful writer, the real-life material presents an unbeatable opportunity to draw a brilliantly scathing portrait of a man both at war with his rival and himself (or, in Trump’s case, the facts). Not that anyone should feel sorry for such an innately self-centred individual, who has continually put his own needs and greed for power ahead of the good of the nation.
In the hands of a skilful writer, the real-life material presents an unbeatable opportunity to draw a brilliantly scathing portrait of a man both at war with his rival and himself (or, in Trump’s case, the facts)
One also wonders what the Pilgrim Fathers would have made of a Trump presidency. Surely the four freedoms – religion, speech, press and assembly – they originally fled to the US in the hopes of preserving have been severely threatened by the Trump administration, which has frighteningly evidenced many of the hallmarks of fascism in recent months.
A tradition born of conflict
Yet even as Biden has spoken today of the need to heal and move forward from “the grim season of division” that has riven America both before and since polling began, it is interesting to recall that the traditional Thanksgiving celebration was actually begun during a similar period of national division: the US Civil War – the very bloody, divisive and destructive ‘War Between the States’, which lasted from 1861–1865 (and for which, some argue, the rationale has never truly been resolved, as is indicated by the racist rhetoric and stance of many Trump supporters).
While the Pilgrim Fathers did indeed celebrate a feast to give thanks for their safe arrival in North America and the bountiful food generously provided by the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts (and no doubt to deeply resented by every Native tribe since), and this did indeed provide the inspiration for the official four-day holiday celebrated by Americans across the US (and the pond) ever since, the actual holiday came into practice directly as a result of the frictions that triggered the Civil War and its ensuing deadly battles.
After the Northern states of the US overwhelmingly elected abolitionist Abraham Lincoln as president, thus dealing a supremely enervating blow to the proud slave-owning Southerners who had profited enormously from the centuries of hard work done by their African ‘inferiors’, the South retaliated with their own brand of coup by firing on Fort Sumter – a strategic declaration of war directed at a federal fort smack in the harbour of the leading slave-port city of Charleston, South Carolina. This open declaration of rebellion and secession signified the South’s unrelenting unwillingness to submit to a unified federal government that denied it the power to continue twisting laws regarding slavery to its own benefit and thus enhance its power.
And so began four long years of hellish conflict as brother fought brother across borders demarcated by the famous Mason-Dixon line (a line separating the officially Northern [Union – Yankee] states of Pennsylvania and from the Southern [Confederate – Rebel] states) in what was then alternatively described as the ‘War Between the States’, the ‘War of Secession’, the ‘War of the Rebellion’ or the ‘Great Rebellion’, or the ‘War for Southern Independence’, depending which side of the line you fought on.
In late 1862, the Northern Yankees were returning home in the midst of what seemed an interminably long, dark, cold and depressing winter with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Many thought of giving up the fight. In acknowledgement of their pain and suffering, 17 governors instituted a four-day state-wide thanksgiving holiday
In late 1862, the Southern Confederate armies seemed to be winning. After suffering horrendous casualties in the first two years of fighting, the Northern Yankee troops were returning home in the midst of what seemed an interminably long, dark, cold and depressing winter with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Many on the front lines of the battle were demoralised and secretly thought of giving up the fight.
In acknowledgement of their suffering and hardship, 17 state governors decided to institute a four-day state-wide Thanksgiving holiday, with New York Governor Edwin Morgan declaring that despite it being “numbered among the dark periods of history” there were still reasons for giving thanks, because “Our Government and institutions [being] placed in jeopardy have brought us to a more just appreciation of their value”.
This prompted President ‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln to set a series of national days of thanksgiving over the next years of the war, in which the tides progressively turned, and the Rebel Confederate armies of South finally capitulated in shame and defeat.
These various days of celebrating thanksgiving at different times during the four long years of the Civil War ultimately culminated in the eventual date of the last Thursday of November, which was thereafter set as the day in which “all Americans in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands” were urged to observe a day of thanksgiving to God for the endurance of democracy and the emancipation of formerly enslaved people and set as a permanent national holiday.
New rifts – and new urgencies
Now, nearly 150 years later, America faces new internal fractures and rifts, both to its population through the ever-increasing Covid toll and its economy.
As with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War attempting to heal the rifts caused by that bitter division through celebrating the lasting preservation of the unifying ideals of democracy and freedom, President-elect Biden has rightly chosen the theme of the war on Covid as a unifying rallying point in his Thanksgiving address: “We need to remember we’re at war with a virus — not with each other. This is the moment we need to steel our spines, redouble our efforts and recommit to the fight. Let’s remember – we’re all in this together.”
Biden reminded all Americans that staying home and forgoing traditional celebrations is actually a truly heroic act that can help save lives in a time where the country is seeing 160,000+ new cases of coronavirus a day. He is notably always publicly wearing a mask – unlike the prize turkey who has noticeably been without one more often than not, a signal of his carelessness and lack of empathy while presiding over the nation’s gruelling death tolls.
Biden also echoed Lincoln’s urge to celebrate America’s democratic institutions in a not-too-subtle slingshot at Trump’s efforts to overturn the election process by stating, “America was tested this year… [but] we are up to the task. [Here] we have full and fair and free elections, and then we honour the results. The people of this nation and the laws of this land won’t stand for anything else. Through the vote – the noblest instrument of non-violent protest ever conceived – we are reminded anew that progress is possible… [so] today can be better than yesterday, and tomorrow can be better still.”
I well remember the sleepless, nail-biting and near-despairing days of the election, watching anxiously as votes were counted and states turned red or blue, with some stripey-swings and others as yet uncounted, undecided. The time differences in the reporting of results regularly played havoc with my sleep schedules, with days spent fighting off the inevitable exhaustion and brain fog.
At one point when it all seemed to be too much, I lay down for a brief nap respite from all the stress, praying silently to God. And I then very clearly heard the words of the apostle James 4:7, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” As I closed my eyes, I suddenly had a very clear picture of Trump and Biden fly-fishing a few metres apart in a fast-flowing stream. Trump suddenly hoisted a big fish and began yelling out, “I got a whopper! I got a whopper!”
Meanwhile, ‘Sleepy Joe’ – as some have called him – then got a sudden tug on his line as a huge fish started to pull well below the surface. I took that vision as a much-needed reassurance to bide my time and trust, and so managed a few hours’ much-needed kip.
At that stage in the election drama, Trump was still all full of swagger and braggadocio about his sure win. Yet Biden was quietly, calmly and with an eye to the needs for unity for the whole nation just going about his business, already demonstrating a soundly presidential air
At that stage in the election drama, Trump was still all full of swagger and braggadocio about his sure win. Yet Biden was quietly, calmly, and with an eye to the needs for unity in the whole nation just going about his business, already demonstrating a soundly presidential air, just as he is currently doing in preparing to get on with job even while a defeated, ego-bruised Trump is lashing out like his grounded whopper in its last throes.
While we have yet to see what the new year will bring for the US and the rest of the world in the ongoing battles against Covid and to preserve democracy, we can be truly thankful that even in a quiet Thanksgiving 2020 where leftover moussaka takes the turkey’s pride of place on the table, we still have food to eat, we still have our hard-won democratic freedoms, and we still have the ability to choose whom and how we will serve. And as long as these last, let us indeed give thanks.
For all my friends on both sides of the pond, I urge you to continue to pray that wisdom, kindness, truth and justice for all will prevail.
I also wish to acknowledge Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent blog post for details of the Civil War background, forwarded by my mother while I was in the midst of writing this.