There was this movie in 1990 called "Avalon" that followed the path of a fictional American family. It began with a Thanksgiving, it ended with a Thanksgiving.
The opening Thanksgiving was sometime after World War II. There were so many relatives they had to cram past each other on the staircase. There was noise and screaming and laughter and, of course, endless food. Lots of arguing. Lots of kids. The immigrant relatives telling stories of the old days.
It was a raucous, messy, family festival. And that's the way, as Carly Simon once sang, I always heard it should be.
Thanksgiving, the purest of American holidays, should be a marathon. It should go on and on. After all, the first Thanksgiving, nearly 400 years ago, lasted for three days. There were 22 Pilgrim men, four married women, nine teenaged boys, five teenaged girls, 13 young children and some 90 Wampanoag Indians.
Now that's a Thanksgiving.
And they didn't even have a football game.
THE SPIRIT OF THE HOLIDAY
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Thanksgiving, you see, is a big tradition in our family. My mother and father were in charge of hosting the holiday when I was younger, and those Thanksgivings were all in the "Avalon" tradition. Everybody came. They stayed in guests rooms. Slept on couches. It lasted a long time, usually from Wednesday night until Sunday afternoon, but nobody would think of leaving or, heaven forbid, not coming.
These days, hosting Thanksgiving is my responsibility. In my house. And every year it seems to be more of a fight. My extended family is spread all over the world. Plane fares are an issue. It's cheaper to fly the actual day of Thanksgiving rather the day before. Cheaper to go home on Friday than wait until Sunday.
Work has crept in. The boss wants someone to work on Friday, so he can't stay. The college kids want to go home and party with other college kids back for the holiday. The divorced families have so many obligations this grandmother, this stepfather, this in-law. The teenagers all have cars, so they drive themselves and leave when they want to.
It drains the holiday slowly, carves the bark off its hide. What took the Pilgrims and Indians three days now can be completed in three hours.
And people go back to their lives.
MORE THAN WE REALLY NEED
How did we advance so far and go so backward? In grade school, we were taught about the Pilgrims and the Indians, about the wild fowl, deer and maize they ate. But we've likely forgotten the final sentence of one attendee, Edward Winslow, who wrote one of the only two surviving accounts of that first Thanksgiving:
"We are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
I love that phrase. "We are so far from want." It is a measure of American happiness. It meant it had been a while since a crop was washed away, since a hunt went badly. We are so far from want. So they were happy.
Today? We don't worry about crops. Most of us have homes, cars, TV sets, good teeth and more food than a Pilgrim could dream of. We are so far from want. But we can't make time for each other. Things seems more important. Work. Outside relationships. Shopping. Video games. Holidays get clipped. Internet time grows.
I told you the first scene in "Avalon," the big Thanksgiving meal. The final Thanksgiving scene takes place years later, after the kids have grown and made lots of money. This time, instead of a huge, loud, extended Thanksgiving festival, a family of four sits in the kitchen, with the TV set on, quietly clanking the silverware.
I wonder if that's not where we are heading, slowly whittling down the best holiday of all. We are so far from want. But we're forgetting what we need.