Ah, Thanksgiving. The day when families reunite, when the stuffing is just like grandma used to make, when everyone takes a much-needed break from work and school to count their blessings together.
Except, it’s t-minus two hours to when your guests arrive, the vegan and gluten-free sides are already competing for space on the stove with the old-school ones your aunt can’t do without, and your nephew, who’s supposed to be bringing the cranberry sauce, just texted to say he can’t make it after all because he needs to fill a shift for the Black Friday sale, which now starts Thursday.
When you take a break to check your phone, you see the magazine-worthy shots of intricate cookie turkeys your college roommate just posted to Instagram. You glance guiltily at the store-bought pumpkin pie on your own counter.
Wouldn’t it be great to return to a simpler, less stressful kind of Thanksgiving celebration?
Well, yes, if it ever existed. But while Thanksgiving has changed a lot over the decades, it’s always been a complicated, angsty affair. Let’s take a brief journey back through time to see how Thanksgiving became such a stressful hassle for so many of us.
The perfect-looking turkey is a myth
First stop: present day. Social media infiltrates every aspect of our lives, and with it comes the urge to document every important event with publicly posted photos. It’s a particularly unfortunate impulse on Thanksgiving, when a lot of traditional dishes, like mashed potatoes and stuffing, don’t make for super appetizing photos.
Even your most appealing shot of your turkey is probably a far cry from something out of a glossy cookbook — and for good reason. Professional food photographers often go to great and horrifying lengths to get the image they’re looking for, including slathering a turkey in shoe polish to achieve that perfect golden brown. Achieving something that looks beautiful on Facebook is a whole different project than making something that smells and tastes delicious, and trying to do both at once means a lot more work, often toward an impossible end.
Gratitude is overrated
Another relatively recent shift in the way we think about Thanksgiving is the rise of “gratitude.” Of course, giving thanks has always been a part of the holiday — it’s right there in the name. But over the past two decades, scientists have documented growing evidence that a feeling of gratitude is crucial to mental and physical well-being. That’s led to buckets of digital ink being spilled each November about the Very Important Duty all of us have to cultivate gratitude, on top of everything else we’re already doing.
The psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, the director of the Positive Activities and Well-Being Laboratory at the University of California Riverside, knows all about gratitude. She told me many studies really do find that consciously thinking about being grateful can make you to feel happier. “It helps you see the big picture,” she says. “It helps you cope with adversity.”
On the other hand, according to Lyubomirsky, gratitude can also backfire. When we try to be more grateful for the people who help us out, we may actually start to feel guilty for needing help to begin with, or become unpleasantly aware that we haven’t “paid back” a friend’s kindness. Or we may simply not be able to summon up a sense of gratitude and end up feeling guilty.
Here again, social media can contribute to the problem. Lyubomirsky notes that seeing posts expressing gratitude can make people feel good — like the world is maybe a decent place after all. But that’s not true for all people, in all circumstances. “Sometimes, when I see someone express gratitude to someone else, I might feel envious,” she says. “Or I think that person is boasting: ‘I’m such a good person.’ So it can backfire too.”
Made-from-scratch nostalgia is a lie
If the demands for performative gratitude and photogenic meals are new stressors, one that goes back a little farther is the pressure to cook everything from scratch. In 1974, the readers of Bon Appétit were apparently happy to feed their Thanksgiving guests dishes prepared with Jell-O and onion soup mix.
But since then, writers like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle have elevated Real Food — ideally organic and locally grown — from hippie niche to bourgeois requirement. Today, depending on your age, class, and social milieu, it might feel humiliating to roast anything but a humanely raised heritage-breed turkey, or to serve cranberry sauce from a can.
The Real Food rhetoric evokes a time before boxed and canned ingredients took over the kitchen. And it’s certainly true that people (meaning, of course, mostly women) spent a lot more time cooking in that bygone era. But that doesn’t mean that if we time-travelled back to the days before xanthan gum, we’d find the platonic ideal of a Thanksgiving feast with turkey and all the trimmings.
‘Traditional’ dishes are a scam
In fact, many of the elements that we now see as crucial for a traditional Thanksgiving meal were brought to the table by commercial brands. Samantha Cross, an associate professor of marketing at Iowa State University, studied ads in women’s magazines. She found that advertisements converged on a single image of a correct Thanksgiving dinner in the early 20th century. In the 1910s, advertisements for roasting pans or utensils depicted meals that might include goose, duck, or other meats. But by 1930, it was nothing but turkeys.
“Brands talking about cooking the perfect meal often talked about the perfect turkey,” Cross says. “You see that reflected over and over again until turkey becomes very central.”
To a large extent, the entire Thanksgiving holiday is the product of a marketing campaign.
Meanwhile, cranberries, once a local New England food, were spreading across the country thanks to marketing campaigns by Eatmor Cranberry Company and, later, Ocean Spray. Companies selling baking dishes, shortening, and canned pumpkin also joined the mix. By the middle of the twentieth century, we had the definitive Thanksgiving trio of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
Over the century’s worth of ads Cross and her colleagues studied, from the early 1900s to 2014, one consistent element was the positioning of products as a solution to anxiety. In different eras, that anxiety might stem from pressure to get the meal right or to keep the expense of the holiday down. Most recently, it’s been about the need to put your own creative spin on the celebration.
The holiday itself is made up
Now let’s time-travel back a little further, to the inception of Thanksgiving itself — no, not the 1621 meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe (more on that in a bit). Before the mid-19th century, many Americans celebrated a day of thanks in the fall, but not on the same day or with any kind of unified ritual.
Then in 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the enormously popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, began lobbying for the creation of a national holiday. She published stories and recipes pushing a particular image of a white, Protestant, middle-class New England domestic celebration. To a large extent, the entire holiday is the product of Hale’s marketing campaign.
Thanksgiving as we know it was the successful culmination of Hale’s campaign in 1863, when President Lincoln declared a national holiday. Even then, Hale’s ideal Thanksgiving looked back toward an idealized, less harried past, before railroads and soot-belching factories. “Nostalgia at Thanksgiving was a yearning for a simpler, more virtuous, more public-spirited and wholesome past, located in the countryside, not the city,” writes Elizabeth Pleck, a historian at the University of Illinois, in an account of Hale’s work.
It might be unfair to say that Hale hoped to stress her readers out by presenting an unattainable ideal, but her magazine did make it clear that a successful holiday depended on a matriarch’s ability to prepare an enormous array of dishes. (She also chose Thursday as the proper day for Thanksgiving because it wouldn’t get in the way of a housewife’s ability to make another enormous meal in time for Sunday dinner.)
The origin story is rotten
And, of course, a historical look at the stresses of the holiday wouldn’t be complete without a final stop at the First Thanksgiving, which itself wasn’t exactly filled with holiday coziness. The Pilgrims weren’t entirely confident of their ability to avoid starvation for long. And the Wampanoag may have had some inkling of the devastation that would soon be inflicted on their communities by the same people they were dining with.
As for the meal itself, there’s very little we actually know about that first feast. The clearest account from someone who was there, the English leader Edward Winslow, is fairly vague: He says the Pilgrims wanted to “after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors.” Apparently there was a three-day celebration with about 90 Wampanoag guests and a menu featuring fowl, venison, and corn.
And... that’s about all we know. Every other holiday tradition, from gathering at Grandma’s house, to cranberry sauce, to Instagram posts about vegan stuffing, was made up at various points over the years.
So, for your own celebration, there’s no reason not to mix and match any of the traditional Thanksgiving elements, or add new ones that suit you and your family and friends. But consider this your permission to cut out what might arguably be the most long-standing Thanksgiving tradition of all: stressing out about getting it right.