It surely says something about me that I first felt at home here when, in the downstairs Madonna lounge toward midnight one night at the end of orientation, some fellow freshmen indulged me in a discussion of the relative merits of Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was typical of me to pit these two glorious holidays against one another, as though they were antagonists and not perfectly friendly end-of-year neighbors. But I love Thanksgiving, you see, and I fear it doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.
I don’t know why it doesn’t. It combines, after all, several of life’s greatest pleasures: On a blessedly chilly, sweater-weather sort of day, we eat the meal than which there is none greater, watch the Cowboys on TV, carry on one of our country’s noblest traditions, and all in the easy bosom of kindred, spared the stress of opening gifts under watchful eyes.
I suppose there are people who hate the cold, dark late-autumn, who don’t care for football, and who don’t like turkey. I don’t understand any of that, but to focus on the third, it should suffice to say that your turkey is only dry if you don’t know how to cook it. Even white meat turkey ought to be pleasingly moist, and this before you pour on the brown gravy.
The gravy can go on just about any part of Thanksgiving meal save the pies, illustrating an oft-overlooked virtue of the Turkey Day feast: its essential harmony. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes (the sine qua nons) – cranberry sauce, pearl onions, green bean casserole – these dishes were made for one another. And though one doesn’t put gravy on apple or pumpkin pie, pie too just seems the natural compliment to this all-American ensemble of warm, hearty harvest fare.
The thing, though, about Thanksgiving is that however much a gastronomic event it may be, it is first and foremost a spiritual occasion. Courage, Winston Churchill said, makes all the other virtues possible; gratitude, I submit, allows all the other virtues to be appreciated. If you’re reading this, you probably had the blessing to grow up comfortably in a largely safe, still quite free, ever-so-beautiful country. “Occupy Wall Street” notwithstanding, there is no right to attend college, let alone to have the government erase your debts. Indeed, going to college is a privilege, one for which we need thank our hardworking parents; the devoted professors of this school; the monks, nuns and lay people who founded our alma mater 55 years ago; all the genius inventors and ordinary Americans who have labored since the 17th century to make this country rich enough to allow large swathes of its middle class youth to spend four years at leisure; and, as ever, the men who fought at Trenton to free this country, at Antietam to preserve it, and at Normandy and Anzio to liberate the heart of the West (and, incidentally, make possible the Rome semester).
That’s the thing about gratitude: It starts by thanking those close by but leads ever-backward in time in love to men and women great and ordinary – and it leads, ultimately, to God, God who gave the Earth its beauty and the fruit of the earth its flavor, whom we can see in every act of sacrificial love, from our parents’ succoring us as infants to GIs laying down their lives for a friend. Thanksgiving enjoins us to get down on bended knee and give thanks – and then to rise, and rub elbows with loved ones, and eat.
I hope yours is a good one.