An enormous, crackling, shiny turkey on an immaculate white ceramic dish encircled by sprigs of herbs and carried in by a suitably matriarchal grandmama to a joyful, chit-chatting family.
That’s how Norman Rockwell visually defined Thanksgiving in his 1943 masterpiece “Freedom From Want,” and that’s how Thanksgiving has been defined by American culture ever since.
(I won’t even mention the celery and aspic on the painting’s table – they ate weird stuff in the ‘40s.)
Our society’s pastoral cultural stereotypes and ideals come home to roost (turkey pun most definitely intended) around the holidays, and they are a prime example of how much we rely on art and the media to function.
Without Rockwell, how would we know how to set our Thanksgiving table?
The turkey, the purity and beauty, and the complete family happiness are a figment of Rockwell’s imagination and paintbrush. Sure, he got it all from somewhere – yes, we eat turkey, and yes, we are together, and yes, happiness is often there – but nobody’s Thanksgiving is as perfect as he paints it.
I’ve been to Rockwell’s museum and home turf in the lovely West Stockbridge, Mass. It’s the closest place to perfect, Rockwellian America in the flesh, but it’s just another town; nothing is as perfect as it is in the paintings.
Take Christmas for another example. Even as a Jewish person, I have very strong culturally-influenced ideas of what it should be like. Snowy and jingly with dark green pine needles and bright red ornaments. Crisp outside weather and warm fires within. Add in all the family happiness from Thanksgiving as well, and the tree is trimmed.
All of these ideas do not come up because that is what each and every Christmas is like nationwide. They arise because of what art and media have shown us they should be.
An XKCD cartoon alleges that our entire yuletide soundtrack is “a massive project to recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ childhoods,” citing the distribution of release years of popular Christmas songs.
A lot of our visions of Christmas traditions also come from films (here’s looking at you, Rankin-Bass animated productions). Some, including “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” exist solely as an origin story for a fictional character we are taught is just part of the Christmas aura.
The king of them all – the concept of a “White Christmas” covered in snow has even more interesting roots, going back much further than Bing Crosby who sang it or Irving Berlin, the (Jewish, by the way) songwriter who wrote it.
According to the British quiz show QI (whose facts I take as infallible), our most primal definition of a White Christmas comes from the books of Charles Dickens. “There happened to be snow every Christmas of the first eight years of Charles Dickens’ life,” according to the QI website, “which probably explains why white Christmases are a consistent feature of his stories.” This was because Dickens was a child during the tail end of the Little Ice Age, a major cooling period for Europe.
Because Dickens wrote his childhood nostalgia into all of his books, it became woven into our collective nostalgia, rebooting through music, movies, and television into our cultural hive mind.
I know I sound like a downer – a Scrooge McDuck, if you will.
But I don’t mean to discourage you. I just want you to know that everything you consider part of how you want your life’s holidays to be is something that art or media taught you. It’s simply not the way it’s going to be happen this Thursday.
The food might be late or cold, and there might not be your favorite side dish, either. There might be awkward discussions. There might be insensitive comments on behalf of your drunk uncle, or perhaps that’s just more media (SNL) telling us what is right again.
There will certainly be nonstop questions about how everything’s going at Maryland. (Fine, thanks, by the way.)
But that’s not necessarily a negative.
As long as we don’t allow ourselves to be let down when our cultural expectations are not met, we can still have a fulfilling holiday with bits and pieces. As long as we accept that our nostalgia (and I am a very unapologetically nostalgic person) is a figment of our art and our media, we can still be merry and bright this Thursday.
Oscar Wilde, an unequivocally extravagant writer, said it best: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”
But art is the ultimate ideal, the ultimate beauty, and the ultimately unattainable.
Sure, Thanksgiving Day is straight out of Rockwell, but I’m perfectly fine with that.
Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.