Opinion: Is there a problem with Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving / Getty Images

Have we decided what the problem with Thanksgiving is going to be this year?

We could start with the base-level perennials -- the godawful travel, the risk to one's diet, the cousin who is loudly certain that someone has slipped gluten into the gluten-free stuffing. There's typically a grievance against the potatoes: the format, mashed or casserole, whether or not to marshmallow, why is there never enough. Someone has canceled at the last minute; someone nobody invited shows up anyway. At least one child refuses to sit at the kiddie table; the teenagers refuse to put their phones down at whichever table; an uncle insists on watching the football game at the table. The table itself looks nothing like tables on Instagram.

But in recent years, we've had particular reason to squabble over the holiday.

For four unforgiving years, from 2016 to 2020, the problem was breaking bread with your political nemeses. Advice columns bristled with agita. How do you handle your Trump-loving father-in-law or the out-of-towners who show up in MAGA gear? "No baseball caps at the table" was USA Today's Rule No. 7 for avoiding political food fights in 2019. In some other neck of the woods, aggrieved citizens despaired about their Occupy nephew storming in unshaven from his sophomore year at some college "back East."

No sooner was Donald Trump voted out than we had a new thing -- the threat of death -- to antagonize the proceedings. With the government urging Americans to stay home, Thanksgiving 2020 was a potential superspreader event extraordinaire -- and one reserved exclusively for family members. Were you inviting that great-aunt because you enjoyed her company or because you wanted her dead? Into 2021, the challenge persisted as the vaccinated squared off against the anti-vaxxers, with divided families worried about the full immunological spectrum of their extended entourage.

Nearly every holiday -- with the possible exception of April Fools' Day, but just you wait -- has become some kind of political football. The Republican right has been catastrophizing about an alleged war on Christmas for over a decade. Meanwhile, one poorly chosen wig on Halloween, fraught with potential cultural offenses, can result in social disaster.

So let's consider the nominees for this year's chief Thanksgiving gripe: We could make a big deal out of the turkey shortage, for example. Both bird and side dishes have gotten notably more expensive, and with an impending recession, now really isn't the time. Travel this year looks to be particularly crowded and unpleasant. And there's always contagion to fall back upon. With COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus and the flu all going around, a full-fledged gathering should provide ample opportunity to spread ill health.

But would it be a problem to suggest that maybe Thanksgiving not be a problem this year?

Boiled down to its essentials, Thanksgiving is a holiday about shared gratitude. We could just think about the "thanks" in Thanksgiving for a change. That gratitude may have originally been intended toward God and those Native Americans who helped the newly arrived colonists survive -- and for whom atonement may have been more appropriate. But even for us secular humanists, Thanksgiving offers a moment to appreciate whatever good this year wrought, even if by accident or chance.

I can think of a few things to feel thankful for. As vexing as this country can be, the midterms ended with a semblance of democracy still intact. The Democrats retained the Senate, striking a necessary blow against insanity. Elon Musk has sent Twitter twisting and shrieking toward the hellish oblivion where it belongs. Every year, more people seem to recognize the wisdom of spatchcocking their turkeys. If nothing else, for many Americans, it's a four-day weekend. I'll spend mine grateful for any leftovers.

The New York Times