One Very Long Table
America is in fact one long and bountiful table — a feast for all.
Thursday is Thanksgiving Day — that uniquely American holiday when even the most jaded among us take the time to reflect positively about all that’s good about our country.
As young children, we loved the stories of the Pilgrims in their funny hats and buckled shoes, yukking it up with their new Native American friends (pre-enlightenment, we called them Indians) at the first Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s popular these days to dismiss the feel-good mythology about America’s beginnings and replace it with a more historically complete, but also harshly critical, portrayal. Under the new microscope, for example, Christopher Columbus is no longer just the intrepid explorer who ventured across trackless seas and stumbled upon this great land; he’s the invader who brought disease and destruction and whose discovery triggered its inexorable forceful conquest.
And there’s the controversial New York Times’ 1619 Project asserting that at about the same time as the Pilgrims’ heartfelt thanksgiving at Plymouth, the foundation was being assembled in Jamestown for a racist America built on the backs of slaves.
Like all of world history, America’s path from origin to today is a long, rocky, and winding road — and we’re still on it. The story of the harvest feast shared by the Pilgrim settlers and members of the friendly Wampanoag tribe is largely true. But it is also true that in later years, as the settlers’ presence solidified and expanded, their relationship with the Native Americans soured, and much violence ensued.
Is American history a tale of greed, conquest, and subjugation? Or a tale of courage, indomitable spirit, and pursuit of that more perfect union? Should we admire our founders — or should we condemn their mistakes?
I’d argue that they were simply men and women of their time, imperfect human beings, living in a tumultuous world, adapting and evolving — just as we are today. And for this Thanksgiving Day, I’d propose that we take a break from analyzing their imperfections and instead marvel at the magnificent nation they built for us and thank our maker for planting us here.
And I can think of no better example of a Thanksgiving celebration that captures the true spirit of the day than Aiken’s One Table.
For any readers not familiar with Aiken, South Carolina, here’s the magic of what happens. Every Thanksgiving Day, in the heart of downtown, one very long table is erected spanning nearly the full length of the Alley, the pedestrian connector between Laurens and Newberry Streets. A massive feast is prepared, and on Thanksgiving afternoon, anyone and everyone is invited to enjoy it at no cost, all sitting together at that one long table.
(Like most Thanksgiving celebrations across the U.S., One Table in Aiken was canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. But it will be back — it’s far too good to abandon).
The citywide Thanksgiving dinner for all is sponsored by churches in town. Food is donated by local supermarkets and includes mountains of turkeys, mashed potatoes, dressing, greens, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pies as far as the eye can see.
An army of volunteers organizes and plans the event, sets up the long table and surrounding facilities, prepares and serves the food, keeps the glasses full of iced tea (sweet or not), bakes and serves homemade desserts (with second and third helpings as requested), and then cleans up the mess. The list of volunteers is usually filled to capacity within hours of posting. Everyone wants to help.
The feast continues through the afternoon. If you arrive anytime from noon on, expect a long line of people working its way to the food servers. But the line moves fast and it’s invariably an opportunity to meet folks you’ve never met before, even in our small city. By the time you make it through the line, there will be space at the table as others finish.
And it goes without saying that participation is diverse in every way. Anybody — of any creed, color, age, or income strata — can come. Everyone is welcome, and all are made to feel welcome. It just happens, with no mandates or quotas or guidelines — people just coming to the long table to break bread together.
Aiken’s One Table is a real-life example of the true Thanksgiving spirit. We count our blessings. We break bread together, with family and others. In doing so, we recommit, consciously or not, to a better coexistence with our countrymen.
It is as well symbolic of the broader meaning of this great country. America is in fact one long and bountiful table.
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