Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving and the Humanities

A Holiday Steeped in Tradition, Characterized by Acts of Compassion, Serving as a Waypoint in Time and Memory

In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, and it's an occasion typically marked by poultry feasts, team sports, and frenetic shopping sprees. In the District of Columbia, there are many opportunities to take part in these holiday customs, but certainly there has to be something different about the way such a unique city celebrates Turkey Day. It's likely that many will dispense with their typical holiday traditions to distribute food to the less fortunate; some will shepherd out-of-town family and friends to perpetually open museums and attractions, and many will find themselves at work celebrating in spirit.

The First Thanksgiving, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
At the HCWDC, our staff, board, grantees, and project partners will likely be participating in some of these universal or DC specific activities, but chances are, we will also be considering how the humanities relate to this beloved holiday. A holiday complicated by the blurring of historical narrative and literary trope. A holiday that paradoxically encourages gluttony and sharing. It is a secular holiday, but it draws heavily on the religious traditions and philosophies shared by a multitude of cultures from around the world. Perhaps the closest link between the Thanksgiving holiday and the Humanities is in collective memory derived from tradition, remembrance, and commemoration.

Oral history narrators almost always describe community celebrations in their interviews because, no less than an historic building or landmark, the dining rooms of parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, can serve as sites of memory, that anchor people's perceptions of the past. Thanksgiving is often a time for family and friends to recite what they are thankful for, and share a memorable meal. For many it may be a rare opportunity for dispersed relatives to come together and remember old times, loved ones who have passed, and to speculate about the future of succeeding generations. It is these powerfully emotional and widely practiced traditions that make Thanksgiving a place-in-time around which shared heritage develops.

The Humanities Council would like to thank everyone who has helped promote the humanities in DC this year. The study of the humanities is not simply an enriching or edifying pursuit of knowledge – though it is that as well - but it has the power to be transformative on a large scale. Even Thanksgiving takes on a new meaning when viewed through the lens of history and memory. Are you thankful for the humanities in DC? Let us know how the humanities have affected your life by commenting on this post or emailing Jasper Collier, the HCWDC Curator of the DC Digital Museum at jcollier[at]wdchumanities[dot]com.

No comments:

Post a Comment