Thursday, November 22, 2007


So, happy Thanksgiving!

This is not a holiday that means much to me ... even the four day weekend, no matter how welcome, has always seemed a bit prosaic. During the longue durée of my student life it meant fevered paper writing. Now it means kicking off the mad dash to get all of Christmas up in time for the big party this year on the 16th. "All of Christmas" refers to the gargantuan mass of decorations that I scatter meaninfully around the house.

Canadians celebrate a less meaningful Thanksgiving in October. Every year, the papers note that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in Canada. Not sure to what degree that is true, especially given the mythology surrounding the American version, but it fits the national myth.

American Thanksgiving, evidently, is the consummate family holiday, and Christmas apears to suffer by reason of it. In noting this, I take the stance of being on an extended anthropological expedition here ... I have come to know the natives well, I like them, and they seem to treat me as one of their own .... but some of their habits still appear befuddling.
The mythos of Thanksgiving is all about the Pilgrims, as we know, and much is made nowadays about the native people whose land they took. So Thanksgiving is as close as we get to celebrating migration. It doesn't take a lot of history reading to come to understand that migration is at the core of the human experience. In our mythologies, it is both celebrated and reviled. I am not going to such a Polyanna as to decide in one sentence whether its a goodie or a baddie ... migration's effects depend upon where you sit. But, as with war, there is no human civilization without it, no matter how tortured are those who find themselves at the receiving end of migration.

When I was in Prague, I ws struck at the otherworldy beauty of the angry young faces. There was something decidely Asiatic about them. You're not allowed to say that now, of course, because it is an impression piled on a trope. I speculated that there was a little Hun or Mongol there, and that a population relatively genomically isolated for a millennium or so betrayed its past in its faces. I think that we know little about the particulars of the migrations of the Slavs after the fall of Rome (I mean the western version), but migrate they did. And somebody was there, and somebody had to move on or perish. We still fight about these things in the 21st century, not to mention the rather notable wars of the 20th century that stirred up mythologized memories of long past migrations.

The U.S. is mired in Central Asian ... never fight a land war in Asia! The Arabs in Iraq stem historically from the migrations after the Arab conquest of the 7th century, and they were migrated over by Turks and Mongols and Tatars. The Persians like to think that they have been there since ancient times, but they too have been migrated over successively. The Afghans are a boiling cauldron of the peoples who washed over their land, and the Pakistanis sport a new ethnic group of migrants who tell us more about the foundations of ethnicity than almost any people around ... the Mohajirs are just those who came from India at Partition. But in due course they had to assume the characteristics of an ethnic group in order to compete in the hellish politics of the islamic-ideology state.

If they had Thanksgiving in Pakistan, who would celebrate it, and on what day? Would it be about harvest in a new land, or would it be about real estate in Karachi? If they had Thanksgiving in Baghdad, would they celebrate the arrival of the Abbasid Mansur in 762 ... remember that the Abbasid revolution essentially started in what is now Afghanistan and swept the Ummayads off the face of the earth ... well a few of them managed to get to Spain where they founded a glorious dynasty whose tale is too little told. Why? Because that civilization was itself swept aside by a bunch of migrants ... not so much the conquerors of the Reconquista, as by the peasants who followed in their tracks and reseeded the lands with Catholicism late filled with Islam. If they had a Thanksgiving in Spain, would they mournfully celebrate the Moors who surrendered their civilization to make way for the Inquisition? Or would they celebrate the first burnings once the conquest was complete in 1492.

So Thanksgiving always rings a little hollow to me, and even the anti-Thanksgiving traditions do as well. But Christmas ... now there is a great holiday. Pure myth at its root, with another pure myth plastered on top of it, with a solstice underneath everything, and glittering lights illuminating its ancientness. By that, I mean, its pre-Christian roots along with the fairy tale of the birth of the boy king, all celebrated on the darkest day of the year with lights that remind us that spring is on the way.

Photos by Arod. Top photo: a student project at the major research university (MRU) where I work. Lower photo: commercial street art, Oak and Buchanan, San Francisco.

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