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Of pilgrims and prostitutes

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, November 16, 2006

Back in the days when I was young and naive, I asked my mom what a prostitute was. She said that it was someone who sold her body for money.

Thus, I grew up believing that a prostitute was one who earned a living by sawing off her own body parts – an arm, a leg or perhaps even an ear.

And in my pre-adolescent mind, that wasn’t an absurd concept. After all, as illustrated in the most indispensable book of the fourth grade, “How to Eat Fried Worms” by Thomas Rockwell, people will do ridiculous things for want of money. In the book, Billy attempts to eat 15 worms in 15 days for a 50 dollar reward. And if this kid would eat worms for money, it’d only be feasible for older folks to do more drastic things – like chop off body parts.

And that wasn’t the only false pretense that I grew up under. For years, I also believed that the Pilgrims and Indians ate turkey at their Thanksgiving feast. It wasn’t until high school that I learned that turkeys aren’t native to the northeast.

So what did these bonnet-wearing and feathered headdress-donning (or so the myth goes) individuals eat? No, they didn’t eat worms like young Billy did. Instead, duck, deer and oysters likely placated their 17th-century palates.

Further contrary to my childhood beliefs, the first official Thanksgiving didn’t actually take place until the Civil War, long after the bonnet-wearers nearly exterminated the feathered headdress-donners. In October of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared “the last Thursday of November next” a national holiday. He instituted the holiday as a means of brightening the lives of the American people, whose spirits had been shadowed by years of ferocious warfare.

So there you have it – the first two American Thanksgiving tales are stories of people who were gracious in the midst of severe misfortune. They didn’t have all that they wanted, but nonetheless wanted to give thanks for what they did have.

And that’s the great thing about this holiday – your life doesn’t have to be perfect in order for you to be thankful. Neither the newly-implanted-as-American Pilgrims, nor the soon-to-be-nearly-exterminated Indians led perfect lives. Heck, they couldn’t even eat turkey. And despite the romanticized version of the Civil War that’s told today, it was a bleak time in American history. “During-bellum” Americans led lives that were far from ideal. Yet they were thankful anyway.

But as 21st-century Americans, do we give thanks for what we have? Or are we just hungry for more?

On Thanksgiving, we want the turkey that the Pilgrims and Indians never had. In fact, we want lots of it, so that we can load up on tryptophan and pass out early without the aid of sleeping pills. After all, we don’t really want Thanksgiving; we want the day after it. We want the commencement of the Christmas season so we can capitalize on holiday sales, all the while listening to our favorite ballad of wanting, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on repeat. And our Christmas wish lists – filled with things both tangible and intangible – could probably span the length of the Mason-Dixon line.

I won’t lie. I myself breathe a sigh of relief on the day after Thanksgiving when the Christmas season officially begins and it’s finally “legal” to enjoy Christmas music. After all, I no longer have to feel guilty about listening to “All I Want for Christmas is You” when it “accidentally” plays on my iPod. This is not to say, however, that Thanksgiving is a holiday that should be overlooked; it’s more than merely a bridge to Christmas.

As the Civil War taught us, bridges can be burned. But even amidst the ashes, one can find things to be grateful for.

You might want things – so much so that at times, you’d consider slicing off a body part or two, if only it’d get you what you fancy. But I’m fairly certain that you already have much to be thankful for – like a mom who euphemized the definition of a prostitute; she only wanted to protect your innocence.

Thanksgiving – it’s a holiday about appreciating. So let’s appreciate it.

Liz Coffey is a senior American Studies major and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy minor. Her column appears every other Thursday. She can be reached at ecoffey@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.