Start a Healthy New Family Tradition

Pete Hitzeman

Managing Editor and Coach

CrossFit, Cycling, Endurance Sports, Running


We human beings are a strange lot. We continue going through the motions of cultural traditions, long after the reason they were created has been forgotten. In fact, we’ll go right on doing them, even after we learn that they’re harmful.


When has a tradition outlived its usefulness? When, in the evolution of a society, do we collectively decide that the thing we’ve always done no longer serves us? Husbands no longer kidnap their brides, we don’t sacrifice people at the mouths of active volcanos, and alleged criminals are no longer tarred and feathered by an angry mob.



But other traditions persist. We still throw rice at weddings (though most have switched to bird seed or bubbles for literally no reason at all), parents still tell their kids about the tooth fairy, and everybody drinks champagne on New Years’ Eve, even if they don’t like the stuff.


Our traditions form the basis of our shared self-image as a society. We adhere to them as the tenets of our culture, something that is readily identifiable and sets us apart from other peoples. They are altered or abandoned with reluctance, or even violent disagreement. Look no further than the dispute over symbols of the American Confederacy to find evidence of how stubbornly some will cling to their traditions, no matter how anachronistic and ugly they appear when viewed through the lens of modernity.


I contend that, if we hope to progress as a culture, we should examine our traditions with objectivity and regularity, to gain a greater understanding of what they bring us, and even what they take away.


It Wasn’t Always About the Feast

Thanksgiving is a tradition more deeply rooted in American culture than football or the Fourth of July. But as with so many traditions, the modern practice has strayed so far from its origins that attendees of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the early- and mid-1600s would hardly recognize what we do today as the same event.


The earliest recorded Thanksgivings were held to mark survival of some great struggle, like crossing the Atlantic, producing a successful harvest from a brutal and unforgiving landscape, or finally escaping religious persecution. They were profoundly spiritual affairs, where credit for the success of all efforts was placed at the feet of Divine Providence, rather than the bland, general feeling of nondescript gratitude that is, as we speak, washing over social media.


Perhaps the sharpest contrast between the original Thanksgiving and our own is that many of them involved public and prolonged periods of fasting, in keeping with the practices of the Puritans who began the tradition. And no, that wasn’t so they could eat as much as possible when the meal was finally served. The purpose of fasting was to create an attitude of contrition and solemnity, and to spur honest reflection on one’s actions.


The Puritans, by the way, also didn’t believe in holidays. Chew on that with your next bite of pie.


What Are We Celebrating?

The beauty of the earliest Thanksgiving feasts was that they stood in such stark contrast to the misery and deprivation of daily pilgrim life. They were a bright spot where abundance was recognized and appreciated, which is remarkable, given the circumstances in which the celebration occurred. The Mayflower pilgrims endured a transatlantic voyage of some 65 days, in cramped and stinking quarters, aboard a ship that was barely seaworthy. Half of them died from malnutrition and exposure in the first winter. The survivors struggled with rates of disease and mortality that we can’t begin to contemplate today, all under the constant threat of annihilation from hostile native tribes.


Somehow, through all of that, the early settlers found a reason to come together and celebrate their good fortune and abundance.



Contrast all that with your present circumstances. There’s a good chance you’re sitting in a safe, secure dwelling with perfectly controlled temperature, gorging yourself on food that you had no role in producing and precious little hand in preparing, if any. You haven’t been truly hungry in all your life, you are inoculated against the handful of diseases that remain after the advent of mass vaccination, and the likelihood of a neighboring tribe burning your village down is fairly slim.


So what is it that we’re celebrating? Abundance is the norm, challenge is so rare that we have to actively seek it out, and the biggest threat to our survival has become our ever-expanding waistlines. It has become difficult, if not impossible, to experience true appreciation of our collective and individual blessings, because they have been given to us so easily.


What Thanksgiving Has Become

What remains of the Thanksgiving tradition is a bloated, snoring caricature of what it once was. It has become, first and foremost, about the food. Lots and lots of questionably palatable food. We have decided that the best way to celebrate a civilization so extravagant that we are literally dying of abundance (see the obesity epidemic) is to cram as many calories into our faces as possible.


Secondary to that are the totally absurd retail campaigns that strive to find new and better ways to separate us from our money. Thanksgiving begat Black Friday, which has become Black Friday Week, which now threatens to take over the entire month of November.


This version of the Thanksgiving tradition no longer serves us as a society, and should be reevaluated. I am hard-pressed to think of anything more antithetical to the concept of giving thanks than consuming as voraciously as you can, by mouth or by wallet.


The last noble aspect left in the wreckage of a formerly beautiful event is gathering with your loved ones to express your appreciation for them. But do we really need to crush seven thousand calories of dry turkey and supermarket pie in order to facilitate that event? Wouldn’t we be better served undertaking some activity that more effectively connects us, not only with our loved ones, but with the reasons we should be thankful in the first place?


Create a New Family Tradition

I would never be so un-American as to propose we abandon the Thanksgiving dinner altogether, but I would argue that it should be preceded by physical activity. That activity should be challenging, uncomfortable, and preferably outdoors. Turkey trots have become all the rage, and I’ve done more than a few of them myself. But we should also get outside and hike, bike, or explore in nature. It’s not about preemptively burning calories, but creating the circumstances in which true appreciation can flourish, physically and psychologically.


Simply put, if you intentionally make yourself and your loved ones cold and hungry for a while, you’ll find a whole new appreciation for the warmth and goodness of your shared meal thereafter. If you and your loved ones all do it together, you’ll create an indelible memory and a shared mindset that could not only enable your attitude of gratitude, but might just improve your relationships as well.


This Thanksgiving, how about we start a new family tradition, one that is a celebration of our health and vitality, rather than our ability to eat ourselves into a coma. This could be one small step that moves the culture in the right direction, rather than simply reinforcing the habits that are killing us by the tens of thousands.

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