Most Thanksgiving traditions are one-time things. Invented in some form of cultural experience or food. It’s usually picked up somewhere else and implemented in America.
Our first Thanksgiving happened in the 1930s and ’40s, and I can still feel the pain in my grandfather’s voice describing the day. With a strong Baptist accent, he described the traumatic ordeal he’d endured at the hands of his non-Christian wife. In 1930 he was just a young man, pulled up short by religion when his family needed him. Instead of help from a family member or pastor, he was handed a series of sentences from an African-American priest: Move to an all-white congregation; set up in the barn in a converted dairy; and join an orphanage.
Yes, it was horrifying, but the world had already moved on. Now was his chance to forget it, and learn to love the young children at the orphanage. The star athlete only learned to bend down to pick up the children’s lunches and leave the canteen, along with the scraps of lunch for everyone else.
But on his first Thanksgiving with his non-white family, he couldn’t help but bristle at their behavior. He learned their local slang, and occasionally used it to refer to the white relatives. He learned what they had seen on the way there. And sometimes, he made an extra effort to honor the custom he was expected to honor. He broke out the Sunday newspaper, and he went on a diet. He didn’t have that luxury anymore. There was nowhere to hide in the barn. He learned to confront his fears and his anger.
And he learned to see his family in a new light. It was the first true melting pot in our family. We were a group of people from all over the world. But we were also from the same place, the same city, the same town. We all had parents who struggled, who cried a lot, and at least once, fell asleep in the kitchen. We all used our hands and our voices to create Christmas, Easter, and Passover, but we also had one true cultural hero.
Yet, despite my grandfather’s initial indignation, he was never particularly proud of his heritage. I was proud when I was growing up. His children were embarrassed to admit they were Irish-American. Their children were embarrassed to admit they had attended Catholic school. And it wasn’t until two decades after they’d already passed away that I learned that they’d been born in Ireland. So as much as I’m proud of my Irish-American heritage, I’m also proud of it as a source of family and a symbol of my heritage, not just from my own parents, but from my grandmothers, as well.
The template for our culture today seems to follow the same path my family did, it just takes a different path. (See also: the Great White Snowpocalypse. ) So thank you, Mr. President, for your willing shoulders to carry this project of our diversity.
Thanksgiving was a proud event for my grandparents’ family, but a historic one for our country. It’s about accepting one another, and accepting the world. So we’re grateful that you recognized that you and your family had a piece of that American story. But I don’t expect to hold it against you that you didn’t acknowledge our family’s contribution to that story.
And I know we’re not alone. Thanks to new data released by the Pew Research Center, Americans now consider their immigrants a big part of our history. Last month was the first time the Census Bureau asked just how many immigrants or naturalized citizens came to the United States between the years 1870 and 2000. And 75 percent said they come in part because they want to make America a better place.
Just like the gratitude I have for you and your family, and the gratitude our ancestors gave each other when they immigrated, the fact that we have our own family story is a testament to our country’s progress. We are better off for all the blood, sweat, and tears, one gave up their own country for another one. (Even in the case of our ancestors whose religious beliefs or cultural customs they didn’t agree with, as my grandfather also explained, they waited a lifetime for their chance at freedom.)
Thanksgiving is a proud event, but it’s also a holiday of lessons. You taught us how America works. And hopefully you taught us more than just how to put a turkey on the table. You taught us what America stands for. And that’s what