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SARAH POKO: What is Thanksgiving, anyways?

This home looks ready for Thanksgiving. Nelly Smees took this photo at the Pictou Waterfront in Nova Scotia; she says the house is an empty building nearby, but that didn't stop Mother Nature from decorating for the holiday. Thank you, Nelly.
This home looks ready for Thanksgiving. Nelly Smees took this photo at the Pictou Waterfront in Nova Scotia; she says the house is an empty building nearby, but that didn't stop Mother Nature from decorating for the holiday. Thank you, Nelly. - Contributed

I mean, I know the history: Plymouth colonists in 1621 shared their food with the Native American group of that region as a show of gratitude for helping the settlers … well, settle. However, historians and Indigenous activists have shown that the story is riddled with inaccuracies and omissions fuelled by colonial sentiments of that era. 

The modern-day Thanksgiving celebration is nothing like the 17th century feast that started the tradition. Sure, we still have the mountains of delicious food, but now we also have a nation-wide obsession with turkey; a strict adherence to the brown, orange and red colour scheme; and don’t even get me started on the costumes. Chances are, a guy proudly sporting his turkey suit just popped into your head.    

My first bonafide North American Thanksgiving – cranberry sauce and all – was in 2017. It’s not that we don’t have Thanksgiving in my country, Nigeria; we just celebrate it differently.  

In Nigeria, Thanksgiving is not a national holiday like it is here. We usually observe it as a church service in December, often on the first or second Sunday of the month. This service would be an opportunity for you to thank God for all the good things that has happened in your life throughout the year. Many would give testimonies before the sermon; some would speak of finally getting that dream job that seemed to elude them; others might mention a supernatural event that shook their faith but somehow, they overcame it.  

Depending on your trade, congregants would bring gifts as a form of thanks as well. Farmers would bring their best produce, herdsmen would bring the fattest cow, businessmen would donate money, and so on. Those who could not give would sing and dance tirelessly as a show of thanks. 

After the service, families and friends would gather together and have a feast to end the occasion. We would eat chicken, yam, rice and any other meals we fancy. Turkey is also an option but that is usually reserved for Christmas – if we feel like it.   

The theme of thanksgiving and gratitude, of course, did not start with the Plymouth colonists. Its moral importance has been a part of cultural parables, religious principles and etiquette books for centuries. One of my favourite stories about gratitude comes from the Japanese legend titled, “The Crane Wife.” 

One day, a poor farmer was on his way to the market to buy a futon for him and his mother. He hears a strange cry and when he goes to look, he sees a beautiful crane has been shot down by a hunter. Feeling sorry for the crane, the farmer gives away the money he saved for the futon in exchange for the crane and releases it.  

A few days later, on a night of heavy snow, a beautiful woman knocks on his door and begs to spend the night as she was lost. The farmer agrees, providing her with the little food he has. The snowstorm lasts for days and when it was finally over, the woman begs the farmer to take her as his wife. After hesitating, he reluctantly agrees, and they live a happy but frugal married life together.  

One day, the woman asks for a thread for weaving; she then goes into a small room at the back of the house and tells her husband to never look inside the room as she works. He agrees, and the woman stays in the room for three days and three nights. On the fourth day, she comes out of the room, presenting her husband with a beautiful brocade that seemed to shine in the sun. The woman, looking thinner and sickly, tells her husband to sell the cloth at the castle. The farmer does this and gets a huge sum for the cloth; he even gets paid in advance for more.  

The woman goes back into the tiny room to weave and again makes her husband promise not to look inside. This time, the farmer was too curious to see how his wife could make such beautiful brocade with little materials and opens the door of the room. To his surprise, it was not his wife, but the crane he had rescued that was weaving its own feathers into the cloth. The crane explained that she did this as a way to repay the farmer for his kindness and now must leave as he has seen her true nature. The farmer begs her to stay but she flies away and never returns. 

In another version of the story, it is a woodcutter, not a farmer, that rescues the crane. In other versions, the crane is a clam that appears to the man as a beautiful woman. They get married and the woman cooks very delicious meals with the little ingredients they have. When he peeks through the kitchen door, he discovers her urinating clam juice into the food and chases her away (yikes). 

At the end of the day, the story is trying to teach us that being thankful is not about how big of a favour you can return, or about sacrificing your feathers (yourself) in the name of gratitude. Thanksgiving is about realizing the fortune of having people – or maybe one person – who are there for you. It is about being thankful for what you have - not what you want - and recognizing that it could be a lot worse. 

Wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving.  

P.S. - you should probably look through the kitchen door if the food tastes particularly delicious this year.  

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