If I was asked to design an A-list American holiday, I would never have come up with Thanksgiving. As a kid I enjoyed a few Thanksgiving dinner staples, but would have traded them for a trip to Dairy Queen in a heartbeat.
I’ve spent my share of Thanksgivings trying in one way or another to adhere to the holiday’s intended design, usually with the same cast of regulars from my daily life.
On occasion I’ve celebrated the holiday in a house of strangers, save for the friend or two who dragged me along. One Thanksgiving I spent in The Hague, Netherlands, at a training course. I dined on my first Indonesian meal with my classmates, the only American at the table of near-strangers.
The Thanksgiving that gives me some of the warmest memories I spent alone in my room in a deserted dormitory in Minneapolis. How could a roast beef sandwich, fries and medium Coke be so memorable? The clerk who prepared it was friendly and wished me a happy Thanksgiving as I left with the bag of food. But when I discovered the promotional gold-rimmed holiday glass at the bottom of the bag - usually requiring an extra charge on a large soft drink - the clerk transformed the modest meal into a memorable feast. It remains one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories.
Something about Thanksgiving's design seems to work well even when circumstances would not seem conducive to a positive experience.
Thanksgiving's ability to create these strong feelings are not easily identified on paper. Imagine if it were invited to an RFP selection process:
American Holiday rankings:
1 Christmas (38)
2 Easter (31)
3 New Year’s Day (28)
4 Independence Day (26)
5 Valentine's Day (25)
6 Thanksgiving (24)
7 Labor Day (19)
8 Halloween (16)
This isn't even close to how, outside of a feature matrix, I would rank the holidays. I suspect most Americans would say the same.
A number of assumptions are inherent in this type of ranking process that produces results incompatible with our actual experience.
Do all of these features have equal importance and rank?
If I don’t intend to eat candy or decorate my home in holiday lights, should I include these features “just in case” I might want to do that someday?
We forget that adding unwanted/unneeded features to our matrix might be detrimental. Imagine being the only person not in costume at a Halloween celebration or an atheist at an Easter service.
If I had put this scoring system into my RFP, Thanksgiving would not even rank in the top half of the holidays. It turns out that Thanksgiving’s subtle design choices are easy to overlook when insulated from any actual experience.
I know that regardless of how the food turns out this evening, today is already a highlight of my year as I reflect on the many personal and professional things I have to be thankful for.
If today you are also celebrating Thanksgiving, I hope yours is happy and memorable too.