Giving Thanks

Like almost all colleges and universities in the United States, St. John’s suspends instruction for the Thanksgiving holiday so that students who are able can return home to celebrate with their families.

There are always some students whose families live too far away to make travel practical—students from the other side of the country, as well as international students—and others who have personal reasons for needing to stay in town.

Since I became president of the Annapolis campus in 1991, Joyce and I have almost always invited the members of our community who were staying in town to a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner with our family. Over time the numbers have grown—from about twenty in 1991 to nearly sixty in recent years.

The menu includes appetizers of crudités, nuts, wasabi peas, sesame sticks, and yogurt covered peanuts; then there is sparkling water, cranberry juice, fresh orange juice, cold apple cider, soft drinks, and white and red wine. Main dishes and accompaniments include turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes with Boursin cheese, mashed sweet potatoes with pecan maple syrup, cranberry relish and cranberry sauce, cornbread stuffing with cashews, homemade breads, sautéed carrots, roasted green beans, Waldorf salad, and black bean and corn salad; all this followed by apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and ice cream. Coffee and tea are available for those who need a caffeine rush to ward off the post-feast drowsies. And then there are those wonderful chocolates passed around among those who can still fit another ounce or two into their bellies before taking a leisurely walk through the garden and joining us for song or conversation by a roaring outdoor fire as the sun is setting.

Historians think that today’s traditional Thanksgiving fare is somewhat different from the foods the Pilgrims enjoyed at their multi-day celebration. Primary sources indicate that deer, turkey, waterfowl, cod, and bass were certainly on offer. Probably also included were some foods native to the area, and known to be in the Pilgrims’ diet, like clams, mussels, lobster, eel, ground nuts, acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, squashes, and beans. Wild fruits and berries almost certainly figured as well, since strawberries raspberries, grapes, and gooseberries were available for the picking. The garden harvest would have yielded various English vegetables and herbs, among them onions, leeks, sorrel, yarrow, lettuce, carrots, radishes, currants, liverwort, and watercress. A few chickens seem to have made the crossing, so there may have been some eggs on the table as well. And I wonder about those chocolates!

Although the dishes we serve may have changed somewhat over the centuries, an observation made by the late Irv Kupcinet, a long-time columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, is just as true today as it was in 1621: “An optimist is a person who starts a new diet on Thanksgiving Day.”

Diet aside, however, the Thanksgiving holiday not only enjoins us to recall the blessings of the past year, but also links us in memory to our thankful ancestors, and obliges us to give thought to the future blessings of our posterity. Its communal nature reminds us that blessings do not come to us solely, or even primarily, because of our individual merit, but because of our participation in the common good that encompasses our families, our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, and our Union. There is good reason, in other words, for us to share our blessings with others, especially with those who need the gift of community when they find themselves far from home.

Let us all take a moment on Thanksgiving Day to be grateful for whatever good has come into our lives, for those who love us, for those whom we love, and for all men and women of good will everywhere.

Happy Thanksgiving!