We are a people of tradition, and almost nowhere is this more evident than in our Thanksgiving ritual. While people’s Easter traditions vary widely, and Fourth of July may or may not include fireworks, and Christmas might include midnight Mass, or opening a single present on Christmas Eve, or hanging up stockings, we all more or less do the same thing on Thanksgiving: eat a sumptuous meal with people we love.
Despite Thanksgiving’s dubious origin as a textbook display of colonial interracial harmony, no one seems to dispute the fact that one of the key elements of Thanksgiving was, and continues to be, sharing a meal with others, often quite large groups of others. Which is lovely when no one has a highly contagious disease, such as smallpox or COVID, but which becomes highly problematic – lethal, even – when someone does.
And now here we are, facing a federal holiday whose very existence is dependent on tradition (as opposed to religion or patriotism) and we’re in a position where the principal custom (gathering) is legally and ethically off-limits. So what are we to do?
When I worked for Outward Bound, we used to remind ourselves that “traditions make wonderful rudders, but poor anchors.” Traditions teach us about who we are and what we value. Traditions provide constancy and give us something to anticipate. Traditions create memories. Traditions make us feel connected; they heighten our awareness of others. Traditions are, then, excellent rudders, steering us toward greater meaning in our lives. Traditions matter.
But when the traditions themselves begin to matter more than what they bring us – affirmations of identity and belonging, cultural connections, a shift in the rhythm of our lives – the traditions become anchors, preventing us from evolving and growing. Anchors provide stability, but they also prevent progress.
There must be other ways of accessing the benefits of traditions without rigidly relying on particular rituals to achieve these outcomes. Many of us are not yet sure what these other ways are, but we’re going to need to figure it out – and soon. We are people of tradition, true, but we are also innovators and explorers. We are problem-solvers. We are independent, we are imaginative, unconventional, resourceful.
This year we have not just an opportunity but a mandate to establish new traditions around the holidays. I suspect we might surprise ourselves with what meaningful new rituals we come up with. We may, at the very least, find ourselves grateful to have hearts and minds that remain open to new possibilities.