“It’s what makes Thanksgiving Thanksgiving.”

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By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is now working on her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

With Thanksgiving upon us, television commericals have been selling holiday food and related items. The closer Thanksgiving got, more and more ads for sweet potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, etc., starting popping up on TV. That’s no surprise, right? It’s a day of family, eating, football, eating… Did I say eating? So a lot of preparation goes into planning and hosting Thanksgiving dinner. It can be somewhat chaotic. We’ve all had some version of the “I forgot the cream of mushroom soup!” moment of running to the grocery only to find they’ve sold out.

But of the commercials I’ve seen, the one that sticks in my mind the most is the Stouffer’s pilgrim commercial. Take a look…


The commercial does two interesting things. On the one hand, it reifies the same sort of Thanksgiving narrative that’s often taken for granted, regardless of whether people fully believe it. While I find that quite fascinating, that’s another post for another time. What instead strikes me as interesting is the quote,

“… delicious stove-top stuffing — it’s what makes Thanksgiving Thanksgiving.”

Rather than critiquing the commercial’s product punch-line, I’d say it’s a rather apt and reflexive statement. While it’s said in jest, I think it nicely illustrates how we construct the notion of meaning, importance, or even sacredness. By taking something extraordinarily mundane and placing more attention on it than any other object or idea, we can set it apart from the others as being special or meaningful.

It reminds me of the outrage around this time last year, condemning Black Friday/Thursday and consumerism as corrupting the true meaning of Thanksgiving. But thinking back to the comment on the stove-top stuffing, what gets to count as meaningful on this holiday?

In the article linked above, Matt Walsh establishes a dichotomy of capitalism and consumerism, with the latter being the root of the problem in America. But I wonder if these categories are mutually exclusive, as he suggests? One could instead make the argument that capitalism and consumerism are just as American as Thanksgiving (which, I should note, is not exclusive to the U.S.). In his article, Walsh says,

How appropriate, then, that a holiday created by our ancestors as an occasion to give thanks for what they had, now morphs into a frenzied consumerist ritual where we descend upon shopping malls to accumulate more things we don’t need. Our great grandparents enjoyed a meal and praised the Lord for the food on the table and the friends and family gathered around it. We, having slightly altered the tradition, instead elect to bumrush elderly women and trample over children to get our hands on cheap microwaves.

To me, he’s suggesting that we’ve somehow moved away from the “real meaning” of the Thanksgiving holiday, that the tradition has been corrupted — a harkening back to the good ole days, as it were. Overlooking the complicated tradition of the Thanksgiving holiday, which has never been wholly consistent, and assuming there is some way to get back to the good ole days, where would we draw the line? Black Thursday, Black Friday, Thanksgiving day football, modern luxuries, spending extraordinary amounts of money on far too much food and decorations…? After all, the modern celebration of the holiday is just as much consumerism, is it not? Those free range turkeys don’t come cheap.

Thinking back to our Stouffer’s pilgrim now, if meaning is constructed by the participants involved (remember, Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without their stove-top stuffing), is there really anything to be lost whether one is eating too much while watching football or waiting in line all night to shop the sales?

So rather than critiquing those who choose to participate in the Black Friday shopping or those who spend too much money on a perfect meal, it strikes me that we should focus our attention more on what’s at stake in distinguishing these seemingly opposing and antagonistic sides. How are these meaning-making agendas creating and producing — not describing or experiencing — the meaning of the holiday? And from that, what social/national/religious agendas are being established and propagated in this move to get back to the basics?