Already the belts across America are being loosened, and the turkeys brought to slaughter. In anticipation of upcoming familial discord, the Ativan is flowing and the couches of therapists – whose uncomfortable throw pillows one wants to cast aside but which one worries are actually subtle psychological experiments – are occupied.
Thanksgiving is in the offing and it’s the closest thing the US has to an annual collective freak-out.
Yet of all the holidays we’ve turned into festooned tent-poles that hold up the flaccid fabric of our lives, Thanksgiving seems to offer the most promise. Christmas is pure tinsel cupidity. Valentine’s Day is a pinko infantilizing conspiracy. Halloween is heaven for candy companies, hell for everyone else. Memorial Day utterly fails to strum any mystic chords of memory, and Labor Day is simply the end of summer. Neither the fallen nor workers are a match for barbecue.
Only Thanksgiving – which has no baked-in retail component, brooks no costumes, and hardly requires historical recall – has the potential to be great.
But is it? Not even close.
A Nicholas White turkey, one of two presidential turkey candidates last year.
One of two presidential turkey candidates last year. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Historically, Thanksgiving celebrated the friendship between the Wampanoag of what is now Massachusetts, and the Puritans of Plymouth who came together for a three-day harvest feast in the autumn of 1621. Setting aside the fact that that friendship was repaid in genocide, the impulse to take a moment to give thanks is still a lovely one.
Our Thanksgiving, still laced with vestigial God-talk, is therefore just a continuation of an ancient and noble impulse. But who are the Gods we thank today – and even more importantly, what form do our prayers take? They are nothing more than the profane bleats of a bloated herd.
Thanksgiving has become a parodic feast, a celebration of gluttony and discord. As much as turkey has become an integral part of the holiday – a historically inaccurate menu choice, by the way – so too has the eating of it until one is so full one collapses into a deep slumber.
The New York Times estimated average caloric intake to be around 2,500 calories though also admitted it could actually reach up to the oft-bandied about and grossly prodigal 4,500 figure. Thanksgiving is an amateur eating contest, where wannabe Joey Chestnuts and Kobayashi’s make like living taxidermy and turn their bodies into ballotines.
It’s not simply the shocking volume of what is consumed, but the corporate nature of the menu as well. The table is set with the bounty powered by Big Food: Stove Top stuffing, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, Butterball turkey. The national recipes are written with trademarks appended. Our culinary constitution is now trademarked.
Far from the white-on-white purity of Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, Freedom from Want, today’s classics are the culmination of furious lobbying. Each dish from the cranberry sauce to the mashed potatoes to that golden bird comes with its own well-heeled advocacy group, from the National Turkey Federation to the US Potato Board.
Freedom from Want
Freedom From Want by Norman Rockwell. Photograph: Norman Rockwell
And much of what we’ll eat is produced by a handful of Big Food corporations like Sysco, Hormel and the latest behemoth, the Kraft Heinz Company, a company with $28bn of yearly revenue. It’s a long way from Plymouth.
After the gorging, racked by indigestion and heartburn, we find places to be horizontal: shelves, sofas, the floor. We leave it to whomever is the weakest among us to slowly gather the soiled dishes, while some trundle to the bedroom and others to the den. The television is turned on and football begins. Aggressive graphics. Loud print pocket squares. Shouting. And thus another sordid tradition kicks off: vegging out.
This is, in fact, the closest many of us will get to vegetables on Thanksgiving: sitting in front of the television to watch football for hours. Though there is only 11 minutes of playing time per game, the broadcasts begin at 12.30pm and end well past 11pm. We who are food-stuffed unto coma watch as men hurl themselves at each other until they, too, end up comatose.
By now it has become clear that the tackles we cheer rend not just ligaments but brain cells from brain cells, causing life-long damage. By now it has become clear that the football culture we applaud overlooks and enables terrific abuse. That so many Americans let Roger Goodell, that bumbling ass, into their homes augurs poorly for our national security.
People shop at Target on Thanksgiving Day in Burbank, California.
People shop at Target on Thanksgiving in Burbank, California. Photograph: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
And as the last game winds down – the Bears beating the Packers or vice versa – and the clock strikes midnight, we rouse ourselves and lumber to our cars. Is it to home we go? No. This is Black Friday, the biggest sales day in America. So we line up, wild-eyed and bloodshot, in the parking lots of Walmart and Best Buy and Target to wait for dawn.
And when dawn comes, we push each other with tidal ferocity. We clamor and scrum. We kill each other for a discount. Literally, we do.
According to Black Friday Death Count, there have been seven deaths and 98 injuries in the last decade. This year will be no different.
On Friday morning, we’ll awake to headlines of riots at big box stores, of an increase in traffic accidents, and with a hangover. Padding around in our socks and sweatpants, gassy, we’ll peer into the cold, bright fridge at the vast expanse of tinfoil and Saran wrap. And maybe then, in the dawn, we’ll take a moment to consider what a travesty Thanksgiving has become.
And we’ll say, simply, no thanks.