Ah, Thanksgiving. A day to gather with relatives, pause, reflect, be grateful, eat, avoid the dishes, and gossip. (More)

We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving. Gossip was a problem in the Massachusetts Bay colony. So and so’s a witch, or some other kind of sinner. Not much has changed, really. Except the early colonists didn’t have the internet or even telephones. That was a problem, because they all lived in what might have been called suburbs, had they had urbs. Which they didn’t, making it all the harder to keep up.

There was no surfing the web in pajamas while eating Cheetos. No, they had to get dressed and walk over to the next farm and talk to Mr. or Mrs. Next Farmer, who might not know any of the latest juicy tidbits. Worse, neither Mr. or Mrs. Next Farmer had a convenient X in his or her upper right corner. In fact, upper right corners hadn’t been invented yet. So you couldn’t just click the X and head on off to check with Mr. and Mrs. Two Farms Over.

And as gossip was considered sinful, neither could you come right out and admit that you’d only gotten dressed and walked over to get the latest juicy tidbits. You had to have a pretext, wanting to buy or sell or borrow or return something, or seek or offer advice, or anything but “So what have you heard about the neighbors?” That had to seem like an afterthought, a mere slip of the tongue, unintended, as one might slip in a patch of mud, but while we’re down here hey did you hear….

In short, it wasn’t. Short, that is. Just putting on all those oh-so-proper Puritan clothes took time. Add walking over to Mr. or Mrs. Next Farmer’s farm and pretending to buy or sell or borrow or return or seek or offer, and half a morning could pass before you got around to slipping in that mud. And you thought dial-up was slow.

As we all learned in school, by late autumn things were looking grim. With all the hours lost getting dressed and walking and pretending before finally slipping in that mud, they weren’t getting a lot of farming done. So they asked the local natives how they managed to keep up with the gossip while still keeping themselves fed, and the Native Americans shared some of their secrets: “We send the men out in hunting parties, where they walk silently through the woods while talking about the women. Meanwhile, the women cook together in the camp while talking about the men. Then we all have dinner together and compare notes.”

At this point you may be wondering: (1) How did the men walk silently through the woods while talking about the women? and, (2) What were the women cooking if the men were still out hunting? It turns out the Puritans wondered those same things, but the Native Americans didn’t share all of their secrets.

Not knowing those Native American secrets, the Puritans could only do the third part. So they had a big community meal, the first Thanksgiving. Of course, gossip was still sinful, so as always they needed a pretext: thanking the Almighty for getting them through their first year, complete with a long and rambling prayer uttered by the Puritan patriarch while the matriarchs silently fumed that dinner was getting cold and the kids watched quietly to learn their roles for next year’s school play.

When the Puritan patriarch finally said “Amen,” after a false start earlier in the prayer when he said “A man should also be grateful for…,” they dug in. They ate and smiled and made pleasant small talk and nodded to the people at the far end of the table and no one gossiped … yet.

After dinner was finished, the men looked at the mounds of dishes and suddenly remembered they had to do that-thing-you-know-oh-sure-right-yes-we-should-get-to-that. So the men, neither on a hunting party nor walking silently through the woods, left to talk about the women. This of course gave the women, doing the dishes rather than cooking together, both an opportunity and a reason to talk about the men.

Once the men were sure the dishes were done, except for oh-sure-I’d-be-glad-to-help-why-didn’t-you-ask-here-let-me-dry-that-one-last-spoon, the Puritans could then mill around, chatting a bit here before saying “Excuse me” – more polite but not as efficient as clicking the X in the upper right corner – and going over there to chat a bit more there. And thus the Puritans managed to both eat and catch up on the latest gossip, all under the pretext of gratitude to the Almighty. They didn’t even have to pretend to slip in the mud.

So as you gather with your relatives this year, remember what this day is really about. It’s a day to be reflect, to be grateful, to embrace the warmth of family and friends and … oh-we’re-about-to-miss-the-kickoff-grab-a-beer-hey-did-you-hear and the-men-always-leave-us-with-the-dishes-pass-the-wine-hey-did-you-hear….

It’s still slower than dial-up. And who tracked in that mud?


Happy Thanksgiving!