The Thanksgiving Tuna and Other Traditional American Rituals

11/30/2010 12:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

We Americans often pride ourselves on not being ritualistic. However, as anyone with even partly open eyes saw on this fourth Thursday in November, we are intensely ritualistic. Thanksgiving is arguably the most universally observed of all American rituals. It transcends region, religion, age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and any of the other demographic categories that so sadly and often divide us. It is thus a day where these differences seem to disappear (would that we could extend that feeling somehow).

There are many aspects of Thanksgiving that are broadly common among us -- the preschool turkeys made out of paint-y handprints on construction paper, the pilgrims hats, the feathered native American bonnets, the reenactments of the first Thanksgiving and the landing at Plymouth Rock. However, the single most widely experienced aspect of this holiday is the Thanksgiving Dinner. If, as Laurie David has so beautifully noted in her recent book on family dinners, dinnertime is crucial to the psychological health and well-being of children and families (it is!), Thanksgiving dinner is perhaps the most important dinner of the year. Every family knows this instinctively. We know that in this dinner we have a ritual extraordinaire. We are more careful with this gathering than with any other. The turkey must look like the ones in the Publix commercials; there must be pie; there must be that green bean/mushroom soup/fried onion casserole invented in 1955 by Campbell's soup employee Dorcas Reilly. There must be a blessing reflecting faith in a religion or a way of life and an expression of belief in and deep appreciation for the goodness of this wonderful land we live in.

Thanksgiving dinner -- that glorious ritual that represents a touchstone in modern lives filled with things that pull us apart from one another. Turkey and all the trimmings. But, the fact is, it's not always turkey. This year, as I walked on the beach here on Hilton Head Island, I donned my eccentric professor outfit and, upon introducing myself as such and telling people that I was interested in family dinners and rituals surrounding them, people told me about their "traditional" dinners. Turkey all around? Hardly. Some people have pepperoni pizza and salad. Some have ham. Some vegetarians have tofurkey. But by far the most interesting menu I heard about was the Thanksgiving Tuna! A family told me that every Thanksgiving they bake a whole tuna for their large family gathering. They would not even think of a turkey (much less pizza and salad). But their Tuna Thanksgiving was just as meaningful and warm as everyone else's. The grandmother teared up as she told me they have been making a Thanksgiving tuna for more than thirty years. The grandchildren smiled. The effect of the ritual was clearly evident in all of their faces. There was meaning there -- tradition -- predictability.

So why does Thanksgiving dinner work so well for all of us? Is it the turkey? The ham? The tuna? Is it the special food that makes Thanksgiving dinner so powerful? Do we get together to have Thanksgiving dinner or do we have a ritualistic dinner so we can be together? Which is it? Or is it the fact that no matter what we eat or do, we always do it? Isn't it really the ritual? Give us a reason to perform a ritual that we know in our hearts is good and healthy and we'll do it. Turkey, tuna, pizza -- all of them are as American as, pie. Or some kind of pie...or that mini-marshmallow and coconut stuff.... It's not the dinner that we should be thankful for. It's the fact that after twelve months of ups and downs, goods and bads, we are together again with people we love, sharing familiar things that tell us that no matter what may have happened during the year past, there is stability in this world. Kids need this reassurance. Parents and grandparents need this reassurance. It is the existence of these moments for which we should give thanks. They are the sweetest reason for this wonderful American tradition.

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Thanksgiving Day, 2010.