Saturday, December 20, 2008

Remembrance of repasts

Now I sit me down to eat

“Does your family say grace at Thanksgiving?”

When I ask my friends that question, most of them say “Yeah” or “Of course.” They're puzzled that I would even ask.

My family never does.

We didn't at last month's observance of the occasion and we won't next week when we gather for Christmas dinner. There are never any prayers at the three big family meals that we traditionally hold each year: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. All three feasts mark religious holidays that my entire family takes very seriously. So what happened to the religion?

It's my father's fault, despite his being a Catholic of Bill Donohue's querulous school of thought. And the reason is simpler than one might think.

No, he is not being sensitive to the feelings of his nonobservant eldest son. He is, rather, being sensitive to the promptings of his stomach.

For as long as I can remember, Dad has never been content to wait till anyone announces that “Dinner is served.” Especially on major holidays, when the house is filled with all kinds of mouth-watering scents from the kitchen, Dad is drawn to the dinner table like a fish on a line. He is reliably the first person to sit down, while the rest of us tarry. We know that Dad always jumps the gun and sits down before dinner is ready.

However, the moment the first platter of food is placed on the table, Dad's fork is in it. He serves himself immediately as each item arrives. As the rest of us drift in and take our places, he is building up a head of steam and is in full consumption mode. With the advantage of long experience, Mom anticipates Dad's peremptory demand for bread and ensures that the dinner rolls are by his elbow as soon as possible. (My father insists on bread at all meals.)

The meal lacks an official start. It's each man for himself. Or woman. Or child. Just as Dad is always the first, Mom is always the last. The meal is always excellent, but it's just as reliably chaotic and lacking in a sense of occasion.

I've never quite figured out how this was allowed to happen. Sure, I understand the prerogatives of the paterfamilias in a traditional family, but the abandonment of the customary religious observances by traditionally religious people remains puzzling. My best guess is that we simply don't show up promptly enough to suit my father. If we were all in place when he was ready to begin, then perhaps there would be more attention to ritual. Since we never are, the niceties are abandoned in favor of a free-for-all. Mind you, I'm not complaining at being spared the recitation of some saccharin platitudes, but it is a source of bemusement.

In observance of my own personal tradition, I will carefully refrain from saying anything about it. It would just be asking for trouble.



Nick Barrowman said...

Mind you, I'm not complaining at being spared the recitation of some saccharin platitudes ...

I've been working on replacing traditional prayers with words that seem more authentic to me. For example, "As we join together to enjoy this wonderful meal, let us pause to remember those who are hungry in our community and around the world. Let us treasure each other and this time together."

I don't find it easy to transform the traditional expressions of gratitude and petitions to God into more resonant words. Gratitude is a particularly tough one, but I try to express that sentiment through concern for those without. Petitions to God are a bit easier: appeals to the Almighty to solve the problems of hunger strike me as disingenuous and disempowering; it's up to us work to improve our lives and our world.

Anonymous said...

Thanksgiving is a religious holiday?

Zeno said...

Yes, of course Thanksgiving is a religious holiday. Who do you think we're supposed to be thanking? It's not a holy day of obligation in Catholicism, so it's a cut below Christmas and Easter in that sense, but the religious aspect is overt in the various presidential proclamations (even if it's nonsectarian). Somewhere along the line, though, my parents gave up on trying to haul us all to the Thanksgiving Day morning mass. And I give thanks for that.

The Brutal Gourmet said...

My parents always pray before every meal -- even if they are just grabbing a bite on the road. Leading the prayer is a "privilege" which my father hands out at each occasion. Quite a few years ago I asked him to stop calling on me, since I did not believe and I felt strange leading those who did in prayer. He was devastated, of course.

I was very proud of myself when the first time they came to my house for dinner, my father asked me if I would mind if they prayed and I said "of course, go right ahead" rather than "hey, you can talk to your imaginary friend all you like", which was the first thing to come to my mind...

Barry Leiba said...

This post of mine from a couple of years ago seems appropriate here.

Interrobang said...

I don't believe Thanksgiving is a religious holiday in this country; it's a traditional harvest festival with the name coopted from the American celebration. Then again, the Thanksgiving I am used to celebrate happens in October.

appeals to the Almighty to solve the problems of hunger strike me as disingenuous and disempowering; it's up to us work to improve our lives and our world

Uh, if that's the case, then why put an imaginary god-figure in the equation in the first place, or are you rationally expecting us to believe that this putative god put misery on Earth to give people something to do?

Zeno said...

If we're talking about the U.S., I'd say that Christmas isn't a religious holiday either. It's a commercial version of Saturnalia. Of course, there's a whole lot of lip service about Baby Jesus and cows and mangers and stuff, but it's a big secular holiday in America. Simple observation supports that conclusion.

Shygetz said...

I love the way your dad runs his feasts. I'm going to have to see if I can co-opt that for our celebrations. Then again, I don't know if my wife will let me get away with it.

Anonymous said...

It could be worse. The last few years, before saying a prayer, my mother-in-law has insisted we go around the table and each of us declare what it is we're thankful for this year. Family politics in microcosm. What if I mention something that I didn't bother telling them about? What if I say something so secular as to be offensive? What if...

Husband and I aren't "out" to his family as atheists, although M-in-L has figured it out. But still, it seems like an invitation to unintentionally insult somebody.


Anonymous said...

No overt prayer, but a few years ago my sister (via her kids) introduced the same thing Minerva has inflicted on her:

we go around the table saying what we are thankful for. Begs the question, thankful to who? And neither the kids cutesiness (thankful for electricity) or my graceful dodging (thankful that it's Matthew's turn next) undo the harm of introducing superstition into what should be a pleasant gathering over a good meal.

I'll figure out how to stop it by next year.