A handsome white Cape Cod thronged with mature oaks, lawn mottled with colorful mosses, the porch swept and inviting: this iconic American house fittingly hosts an iconic American tradition. The sleepy neighborhood recalls an older, better time in America, where children played outside—is there a better metric for the health of a nation? Every year, I brush past my aunt’s prancing red Pomeranians and put my coat in the room with all of her Barnum and Bailey’s memorabilia—the circus, a last reserve of wonder, yet another casualty of Concerned Citizens.
Tumorous commercialism of the cult of “the holidays” aside, there is nonetheless a difficult to shake sense in the West that we have been left to our own devices. Even we converts find this day more real than perhaps we do the feast days of our new old time religion. But there is a painting of the Last Supper on the wall, and in the next room, a cross and a painting of General Lee astride Traveler. The bathroom wallpaper declares in a whimsical country font: “Always Be True to the Red White and Blue.” The faux pas continue with traditional roles: my uncles, big, burly men, sit together in the sun room and talk, while the women fret the food covering the counters and make finishing touches. Where once my cousins and I ran and played, our own children have replaced us, bringing joy to the aging. And so the years have passed like this, in their inexorable and mysterious way, forming a secular rhythm which is nonetheless formative to those of us who did not grow up with liturgy.
The weather for our gathering has always been bright and clear, or if it hasn’t, the rosy glaze of memory has supplied its lack. Out on the deck, the crisp, still day refracts the sounds of voices in celebration and conversation, joining with the lilting echoes of the neighbor’s children. This lively human hum defies the ever present smog of political ugliness and taps into a primal satisfaction.
There are moments of otherworldly stillness in times of congregation that detach the beholder, situating him between worlds. A sense that nothing changes because the tradition is always the same, though the relatives may be incrementally older. Lichen spotted trees thinned of their leaves reveal greater swathes of sky; bareness draws us closer to infinity. On the one hand, memento mori, on the other, revelry. Aud lang syne oddly becomes a presage of eternity: the line between nostalgia and the existence to come is supple. The creature in time understands himself, however briefly, as timeless.
The earthly traditions that moor us all propel us to that eventual instant—the summum bonum, that unfurling finality—in which we find ourselves face to face with God. Every clink of a fork against a platter, every condensing breath in the cold, the sun lighting as if from within the eyes of loved ones, is a permanent experience. Memory absorbs from the senses and by the action of Logos is transmuted into transcendence. The deep reservoir of memory invites perennial retreat and reflection to its private pools. In some sense, what we remember is a form of foretelling: the meaning of our memories, like the sanctification of our souls, emerges gradually and gloriously. Our traditions thus etch our beings, orienting us to ourselves, others and our telos.
The same tradition lived over many years coalesces into a single living memory, suggesting at its core that nothing changes and there is something good to look forward to. Indeed, nothing changes with God: He is immutable, and wholly good. In observing traditions, even secular ones in our much desacralized culture, we are offered some protection against modern vagaries, and some reprieve for our souls. The rituals that are a part of us are stabilizing, renewing, and ground us in the nature of sublime reality.
Whether you are eating off of paper plates or fine china this year, be grateful for those who have been provided to you as fellow travelers, and for the work of the hands that feed you. The family we see every year for Thanksgiving are given to us out of goodness, to refine us in charity. The traditions we forge together unite us to each other, and to God. Enjoy the moment—and be the one to turn off the football.
Happy Turkey Day from Helicopter Mom.