Be Thankful It’s Only Once a Year

A Thanksgiving Survival Guide

Although Norman Rockwell is no longer around to act as an apologist for this particular holiday, Thanksgiving continues to get way more positive press than it deserves. Common wisdom will tell you Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends to gather and give thanks. Bear in mind this example shows why common wisdom is considered so common. Our shared experience—which ranks slightly higher than common wisdom—will tell you it is only after the holiday and once they are home that your guests give thanks. Trust me on this. They were bored during their entire visit. It does not matter what flattering comments they place on social media. That is only to create the modern equivalent of Mr. Rockwell’s picture of a fantasy world.

Why do we find it necessary to create the illusion of happy people around the holiday table? Because the real image of Thanksgiving is one of stress. Depending on the distances involved, it requires one or more days in which you must deal with the hassle of traveling across town or across the country only to spend time with some of your least favorite people—your extended family. Not only do you have this level of stress, you end up sitting in the middle seat of a small couch for hours hearing about the medical conditions of every senior in the extended family. In a month you will face the same set of challenges, but at least at Christmas your inner eight-year-old has the hope of receiving a toy from the scattered pile under the tree. Your best hope at Thanksgiving is that your digestive system will survive after you have consumed several times your bodyweight in carbs and sugar.

You might have your own particular reasons for liking or disliking the November holiday, but chances are you might realize Thanksgiving has three fatal problems: food, fun and family. The issue with food is there is too much of it. As for fun, there isn’t any. Family is self-explanatory.

So what would make us endure this annual celebration of turkey-stuffing and stress-eating? That’s a damn good question. Most people will tell you Thanksgiving is a special time when families come together. This only the depth of their cultural conditioning.

The social construct we call “family” came about as a cultural adaptation. This is the scientific way of saying we made it up. This particular adaptation was made to ensure our survival as a species which some consider important while others are not so sure it’s been a good idea.

Prior to the development of the family, early Neanderthals were in danger of extinction. The idea of the end of the species was not really much of a concern to the Neanderthals since apocalyptic novels were many centuries in the future and they could not read. In addition, ideas of any sort were not the strong suit of the Neanderthals. Individual extinction, on the other hand, was of immediate concern. However, even the thought of slowly starving to death could not motivate some individuals to participate in hunting and gathering once they realized it wasn’t just that the leaves were off the trees—it was the Ice Age. Left on their own, most Neanderthals preferred to find a comfy spot to sit out the cold months and practice their cave painting.

Sitting inside was their only option since hibernation was not a good fit. Our ancestors were incapable of putting on the layers of fat other animals could use for insulation and nutrition through the long winters. In addition, while they had not yet invented subsistence farming, they had come up with a primitive form of body shaming. You will not find any fat stick figures on the cave walls. Left to themselves, our Neanderthal ancestors1)A note for those who are hung up on my use of Neanderthals as a stand-in for ancestors of homo sapiens. I realize many scientists do not believe modern humans are descended from Neanderthals. I chose to use the term because I prefer it to endlessly saying “early humans.” Also, those who are sure we are not related to Neanderthals have not met some of my relations. would slowly waste away while sitting in their nice, warm and safe caves. Outside it was cold, wet, and full of saber-tooth tigers. Only an idiot would go outside unless they were driven out. This is where family played a part2)To be fair, the Neanderthals also had their fair share of idiots..

After hours inside with their extended family, a Neanderthal had to make a decision: go outside to face freezing cold and wild beasts or stay inside where he was warm, comfortable, safe, and starving. You might think it was hunger that drove them outside but you would be wrong. They chose to brave the elements rather than listen to the grunts and groans of their in-laws as they described their assorted ailments in what was at best an early attempt at a proto-language.

Then one of the males would utter a few syllables in the equivalent of “You guys stay here and enjoy your time together. I’ll run out to the grocery store and pick up a few things we need for dinner.” The male—possibly with a few buddies—would then grab his favorite sharp stick or rock and go in search of something both edible and below him in the hierarchy of predators. Along the way, he and his buddies would bemoan their fate. Both fermented drink and the bow and arrow were a few centuries further down the line.

Lacking ranged weapons, the early pre-humans had to choose their prey with care. Rabbits were too quick. Squirrels didn’t have enough meat on their bones. Wolves, bears and saber-toothed tigers were dismissed after the hunters considered the likely outcome of teeth and claws against stones and sticks. Formulating long-term plans based on hypotheticals might not have been in their skill set, but it didn’t mean they were entirely stupid. The hunters settled on the turkey as prey that was large enough to feed the clan back in the cave and yet unlikely on its own to cause grievous bodily harm to the hunters.

We can see an extended family confined within a single cave for a few hours was sufficient to drive individuals out to hunt and would result in food for all. Thus, the extended family was crucial to the continuation of our species although the turkeys were not all that fond of the new arrangement. Eating to the point of bloat also addressed the challenge of living within a small, shared space as it helped everyone fall into a pleasant slumber after the meal. Falling asleep during the Lions’ game is seen as a modern continuation of this ancient practice.

Today we can survive without requiring our hunters leave the warmth of the house when it is full of extended family. On the other hand, allowing some members to say, “You guys stay here and enjoy your time together. I’ll run out to the grocery store and pick up a few things we need for dinner,” does reduce the possibility of violence within the clan.

Within our modern world, there is one guaranteed way to make sure everyone enjoys their Thanksgiving dinner—eat out. If possible, go to Waffle House3)If you do not live in a location that has a Waffle House that might mean you live in the frozen north and cannot leave the house because the door is frozen shut. Or you live in one of the pagan Western states like California or Nevada. In that case, you probably don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and think Norman Rockwell was a defense contractor.. If you do not live near a Waffle House then you will be forced to one of the lesser alternatives like Denny’s or IHOP that can be considered just like a Waffle House but without the ambiance.

In any case, there are several benefits available if you can convince the whole group to pack into vehicles and head to Waffle House or one of its imitations. Once you take the group out to eat, you will not have to hear anyone say, “I spent days preparing this meal so the least you could do is sit down and eat it.” I am sure some will not feel it is really Thanksgiving without hearing this proclamation at least once, but I would be happy to live without it. Dining out also means you get to select only the side dishes you intend to eat. You will not have to say “no” for the tenth time as your grandmother tries to pass you the beets, cranberries, or Brussels sprouts. You didn’t like them as a kid and no one can make you start liking them now.

Finally, Thanksgiving is not just about family and food. As mentioned above, Thanksgiving is about fun, or rather, the complete absence of fun. When we imitate adults, we claim we enjoy the holiday just for what it is. When we are honest and let our inner eight-year-old have a say, Thanksgiving is boring. You can’t play video games or read a book because you’re supposed to “spend time with your family.” If the family members are first cousins, you share about 12.5% of your DNA with them and a smaller percentage of common interests. You might think you could escape in the room with a TV but the options are a parade in the morning, the Lions’ game in the afternoon (when you don’t care about the Lions or their adversary), and a Hallmark Channel Holiday Marathon every other hour of the day.

Yet all is not lost. This piece is not subtitled “A Thanksgiving Survival Guide” without reason. I have one word for you and it is not “plastics.” The word is “schadenfreude.” Even though it would be a good example of its use, I won’t embarrass you by forcing you to look it up. It means finding joy in another’s suffering.

You can find this joy by gently tossing verbal hand grenades into a room full of family. If your family is anything like every other family, there are more than a few areas where they violently disagree but have decided the holiday is not a time to fight over politics, religion, tattoos or gender identities. You, however, have a verbal sharp stick and choose to poke the bear. Switching back to hand grenades, the trick is to throw it far enough so you do not get caught in the blast. Even better, just casually drop one in a room while walking through. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • I heard Cousin Ralph thinks the electoral college should have free tuition.
  • Did you hear Progressive Insurance is a socialist front and State Farm is a soviet collective?
  • I saw on Fox News that they say ice is just frozen water. That can’t be true, can it?
  • There was a report on MSNBC on why blue is the most primary color.
  • Social Security4)If there is more than one generation represented, this is all you need to say..

If you would rather stay away from politics or have a completely monochromatic political group, there are always other ways to light a fuse. Ask a couple what year they got married and then look quizzically at their oldest child. See how many people in the room start counting on their fingers. Finally, if you just want the room to yourself, begin telling everyone about the story you heard on NPR covering the history of wind instruments through the centuries.

Once the room is clear, you can sit down in peace and enjoy reading your copy of Zen and the Art of Christmas Letters5)Available on Amazon.com in paperback and kindle., which was my intention all along.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. A note for those who are hung up on my use of Neanderthals as a stand-in for ancestors of homo sapiens. I realize many scientists do not believe modern humans are descended from Neanderthals. I chose to use the term because I prefer it to endlessly saying “early humans.” Also, those who are sure we are not related to Neanderthals have not met some of my relations.
2. To be fair, the Neanderthals also had their fair share of idiots.
3. If you do not live in a location that has a Waffle House that might mean you live in the frozen north and cannot leave the house because the door is frozen shut. Or you live in one of the pagan Western states like California or Nevada. In that case, you probably don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and think Norman Rockwell was a defense contractor.
4. If there is more than one generation represented, this is all you need to say.
5. Available on Amazon.com in paperback and kindle.

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