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The psychoanalyst's Thanksgiving

November 6, 2013
by Terry Stawar
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Thanksgiving is just around the corner and I have been enjoying g my favorite Thanksgiving reading. It’s a article called, We Gather Together: Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day. Melanie Wallendorf from the University of Arizona and Eric J. Arnould from the University of Colorado wrote this back in the 1990s for the Journal of Consumer Research

For me this article represents what might be produced if a scientist from Mars came to earth to observe how we celebrate Thanksgiving. It also reminds me of the Saturday Night Live characters the Coneheads. There is a scene in the Conehead movie in which Dan Aykroyd (playing the role of Beldar, a stranded alien from the planet Remulak) refers to Chris Farley’s prom tuxedo as “a pubescent ceremonial garb.” I believe on the television show, he also referred to “ham and eggs” as “shredded swine flesh and fried chicken embryos.”

I love how, instead of saying “On Thanksgiving Day  we usually  eat a big meal with our families,” the authors, in  their finest academic jargon say, “Thanksgiving Day is a collective ritual that celebrates material abundance, enacted through feasting. Prototypical consumption of the meal occurs within nuclear and extended family units and private households”.

One of their main points seems to be that Thanksgiving Day is symbolically and integrally linked to infancy. Historically Thanksgiving is associated with the birth and infancy of our nation but it also has implications for individuals, as people recapitulate their early childhoods through various Thanksgiving traditions. In all seriousness, they write: “Thanksgiving allows each participant to return to the contentment and security of an infant, wearing comfortable clothing, who falls asleep after being well fed. Sitting in relative silence, each participant is fed plain soft food by a nurturing woman and then is taken outside for a walk.”

According to the authors, Thanksgiving is the equivalent of Sigmund Freud’s oral stage of development in American’s psychosexual panoply of holiday rituals. As such, it comes before the greedy and grasping, anal retentiveness of  Christmas and the sexually charged New Year’s Eve. And you always though that the New Year's Eve Ball Drop in Times Square was just good clean fun.

Wallendorf and Arnould especially emphasize that the connection of Thanksgiving to infancy is reflected in the way people dress. Generally folks wear soft fabrics such as jeans and sweaters, fleece, and sneakers. Elasticized waistbands and other comfortable clothing features are also common. Back home we call them “eatin’ clothes.” They further suggest that our typical Thanksgiving wardrobe “recall the contemporary one-piece, all-purpose infant garment, sometimes known as 'Dr. Dentons.' This is clothing that can move from meal time to play time to naptime without a change.”

Besides the centerpiece turkey, soft food items seem to be the staples of the traditional Thanksgiving meal (e.g. mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, etc,). Many folks even go so far as to smoosh their food together at this meal. While this may symbolize comfortable family togetherness, it also converts this holiday’s fare into the consistency of baby food.

I’m not sure I really believe this psychoanalytic stuff, but it is entertaining and it will certainly be on my mind, as I cram in the smashed potatoes, and observe other family members, dressed  in sweatsuits,  sleep like babies after their annual tryptophan binge. 


Terry Stawar

President/CEO (LifeSpring, Inc.)

Terry Stawar


Terry L. Stawar, EdD, is President and CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems, a community behavioral...

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