This painting by Norman Rockwell is the quintessence of Thanksgiving, isn’t it? You can almost taste the turkey and the tradition. It’s a great depiction of the things that make us want to gather to express our gratitude—family, friends, and the bounty of the autumn table. Did you know it’s actually a springtime picture, though? The Saturday Evening Post originally printed it in March of 1943 as an illustration of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address. In that speech, FDR spoke about four essential human freedoms:
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of worship
- Freedom from want
- Freedom from fear
Rockwell created images for each; this one represents Freedom from Want, which is in fact the title of the work. So while we’re savoring the meal and sharing smiles with the diners, we’re supposed to be thinking at least a little about what it’s like to do without. The first viewers, a couple of years past the Great Depression and a couple of years into a world war, would perhaps have found the painting more topical than timeless. The intervening decades, as they always do, have eroded the spiky complications and left us with the smoother, idealistic portrait we know today.
Holidays, Thanksgiving in particular, tend to have that effect. We celebrate the friendship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag without remembering the war that followed, and we pass a heaping plate to Uncle Joe without mentioning what the doctor said about his cholesterol. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We should have days when we set aside our failings and focus on our ideals, as individuals and as a nation. Traditions help us access those better versions of ourselves, even when those traditions are half imaginary. How many of us ever traveled by sledge down snowy country roads to Grandma’s house, let alone do it now? Nonetheless, we recite that poem with our kids and tell them what it was like to skate on frozen ponds. It’s a fantasia of sorts, but also a safe foundation for the more sophisticated models of the world they’ll have to build later on.
As adults, we can’t reside permanently in Merrie Olde America, and it’s important that we appreciate how little in life is purely black or white. During most of the year we should face reality squarely. By all means, study up on the mixed motives of the people who came over on the Mayflower and got Thanksgiving started, and learn the nitty-gritty about how the holiday came to be what it is today. But when Thursday rolls around, forget about facts for a few hours and focus on feelings of simple, childlike joy. That’s what I’ll be doing when I partake in my favorite turkey day tradition, watching in wonder as giant heroes parade past me in the skies.