Overcoming Family Divisions on Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving is rapidly becoming runner-up to Christmas as poster child in the “holiday wars.” Christmas remains the feast that dare not speak its name, re-(de)christened as “winter holiday.” (What do politically correct Aussies call it?) Thanksgiving has kept its name but been hollowed out. Do we have any communal answer to the question “to whom/what do we give thanks?” It has morphed into a launching pad for the Christmas (excuse me, “winter holiday”) buying madness. Thanksgiving is practically at least a double feast (Thanksgiving/Black Friday) and quite possibly a triduum (add in Cyber Monday).

Two years ago I wrote about this phenomenon, as stores were pushing the limit (and their employees) to open on Thursday night to get a head start on selling, and various jurisdictions were pushing back by legislating Thanksgiving as a holiday when businesses were closed). I’m glad to say that this year several major companies now “get it” and have decided to publicize their decisions to give their Bob Cratchitts “the whole day off” this Thanksgiving. Let’s publicly acknowledge firms that are doing the right thing, regardless of the integrity of their motives.

But what caught my eye this year was a New York Times article about “families across the United States [that] contemplate uncomfortable holidays—or decide to bypass them” because Donald Trump is President-Elect and some of those seated at table voted for him. “Democrats have dug in their heels and in some cases are refusing to sit across the table from relatives who voted for … Trump, a man who they say stands for things they abhor.”

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One could, of course, simply tell such folk to get a life and end the article. That’s one solution, but the editor is likely, however, to complain that the text is too short.

These are the same folks who, in recent years, probably received emails from the Obama political action group, Organizing for America, arming them with talking points about Obamacare with which to go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house to deploy between courses. They were urged to answer goofy old Uncle Joe, who might hold forth on why he opposed the health plan. These are the same folks who were told by a 20-something Pajama Boy that Christmas is time for good cheer, hot cocoa, and signing up for your local health exchange.

See, turning Thanksgiving dinner into a political platform for a liberal cause is quite proper, but allowing it to become an occasion of Schadenfreude is strictly forbidden, requiring retreat to one’s “safe space.”

One could, of course, maintain (and rightly so) that general etiquette presupposes putting controversial topics aside at the Thanksgiving table, since gentlemen do not talk about politics, religion, or sex. Christian charity demands not rubbing things in.

But the Left has long been fixated by a “politics is everything” view that what really matters is political organization. Politics trumps the personal, as a certain murderous maniac named Strelnikov once told Yuri Andreyevitch Zhivago: “The personal life is dead…. History has killed it. The private life is dead for a man with any manhood.”

Alas for some, the “arc of history” that has been bending for the past eight years reached back far enough to give some of the self-anointed an unexpected poke.

Catholic social thought, of course, would start by pointing out that family precedes the state: it, not government, is the building block of society. Family is, or at least ought to be, there for you. Home is where “they have to take you in.” Obamacare may be great (not), but when you’re old and sick it’s likely to be Uncle Joe, daughter Alexandra, and cousin Sandy who occasionally wipe the drool from your face, not Hillary Clinton or Donald J. Trump. That’s what the old saw meant when it said: you pick your friends; you get your family.

And that is why people cultivated family relationships: part love, because they are “blood,” part self-interest, because they’re the family you drew. And in that crazy, maddening but in the end, normal tangle, families survived and even thrived.

Not anymore.

In a voluntaristic world where even the natural order and sexual difference dare not interfere with the choice of “whom we love,” it was perhaps not unexpected that unchosen families would also suffer rejection.

The Times (which has been in a collective meltdown since November 8 over things normal people don’t care about, like whether overpriced, chic DC eateries survive the upcoming barbarian invasion) explains the Thanksgiving family civil wars by noting that non-Trump voters are better educated, so much more policy savvy, and ever so much more “tolerant” than their bag of deplorable relatives. The split accounts for why these fragile folks simply cannot face the microaggressions of their clingy kinfolk who might accuse them of “elitism.” Better to enjoy organic yams with some like-minded at Jackson Hole or Martha’s Vineyard instead.

Perhaps a “great chasm is established” between relatives because of differences in politics or similar, secondary things. But, like Luke 16:26, that chasm is unbridgeable because, in both instances, a lack of charity makes bonds between people impossible.

The past two weeks have seen a lot of yammer about “reaching out” and healing “divisiveness.” Division in America writ large is unlikely to be overcome if we cannot break bread sticks together around the Thanksgiving table.

One wise man once called Thanksgiving his favorite holiday because, differences of religion, politics, or anything else notwithstanding, we all have someone or something to be grateful for. Maybe that someone or something is not perfect—nothing created is—but the underlying attitude of gratitude should endure. Perhaps that ought to be there ecumenical and bipartisan spirit that gathers us together, as families, friends, and fellow Americans, this November 24.

Editor’s note: The illustration above titled “Thanksgiving” was painted by JC Leyendecker for the cover of American Weekly in 1940.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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