A few years ago, I ran to the grocery store on the day before Thanksgiving to pick up a few final items for the upcoming feast. While there, I saw something that is forever seared into my mind: an elderly gentleman, pushing his cart along, with a can of cranberry sauce, a pre-cooked turkey breast, a box of Stovetop stuffing, and a single slice of pumpkin pie. Was this little old man really going to have a solitary Thanksgiving dinner? I could have wept. Thanksgiving is such a powerful and significant ritual for the United States that this man felt he must partake in the traditions, even alone; I felt real emotional distress over the thought of someone having Thanksgiving dinner all by himself. Why?
Tomorrow's celebration is about two things: family and food. Thanksgiving or not, human beings in every culture worldwide share food with the members of their group, making the feast one of the most universal of human rituals. It's also one of the oldest: as soon as Homo erectus—your cousins, a million or so years removed—gained control of the campfire, the ritual of sharing food with your tribal band began. Together around the fire, these hunter-gatherers shared high-value foods like mammoth meat and tubers (and maybe a little fermented honey, if they were lucky). When humanity moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the communal meal came with us, becoming larger and more sumptuous in many cases, like the banquet of tortoise for 35 in Israel twelve-thousand years ago. These meals cement social bonds—fortifying the links between family members and the group. No one feasts alone.
The Thanksgiving meal brings family members—even those far away—back home, strengthening our ties of kinship and of our American-ness. It's a ritual that we perform with our families, but it also signifies our greater tribe, the rest of our country, and the history we share as Americans. You may notice this reflected in your Thanksgiving spread; nearly every table has a turkey, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce (national traditions), but mine has collard greens, pimento cheese, and my mother's exquisite squash casserole (Southern regional and family traditions). As a nation of immigrants, the Thanksgiving feast will often showcase the blended heritage of a family, where alongside the big roasted bird you might find rice in a Chinese-American household, or pastitsio amongst the Greeks. The message: "We're Chinese (or Greek, etc.) certainly, but we're American, damn it!"
We crave this connection with one another, which is why rituals like Thanksgiving become so important as a place to recollect the family and break bread. It's no coincidence that Thanksgiving was fixed as a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War, when the feeling of American tribal fracture was at its height. Back then, it was brother against brother. These days, the problem is more likely to be "Brother? I haven't heard from him in ages!" Over the past twenty years, social isolation has markedly increased, with many Americans lacking even one close confidante, family or otherwise. Senior citizens are one of the most isolated groups, which undermines their physical health as much as their emotional and mental health. For social animals, this kind of alienation is bad news.
But the socially isolated can find some comfort in food. Researchers investigating how certain foods can soothe the emotions gave chicken soup to a group of people, some of whom considered it a comfort food and some of whom didn't. For the participants who found solace in the soup, the researchers discovered it had an association with social relationships, and that it even acted as a sort of "social surrogate," reducing the feeling of loneliness in those people. The comfort in comfort foods comes from the way it reminds us of the most important people in our lives. Chicken soup for the soul, indeed.
I still think about that little old man with his lonely shopping cart, and whether or not he felt as sad as he looked. Sometimes I regret not inviting him home to our Thanksgiving celebration, but I wonder if it would have mattered. My family wasn't his family, and he might have gotten more comfort in his solitary meal, with its own traditions, than in eating turkey and collard greens with a bunch of strangers. Still, it's a reminder that the Thanksgiving feast is more than just a meal where we give thanks briefly before the football games come on. It's a return to the tribal campfire, sharing a ritual with those we love best.
What are your Thanksgiving rituals?