When will NZers learn to celebrate themselves?

Last updated 08:25 23/11/2012

As you read this, I'll be preparing myself for Thanksgiving dinner. I'll open up my day with a run, to assuage the impending post-Turkey food shame. I'm no use in the kitchen, so I'll curl up with a book for several hours for the middle part of the day, zeroing myself into the right headspace for such extreme eating with some quiet reflection and mental stimulation. I'll warm up for my meal with a few hors d'oeuvres and a little small talk and then unleash myself on the finest spread of food I'll see until next November.

ThanksgivingThanksgiving is, as well it should be, an internationally enviable American celebration. This holiday, as it has been celebrated in the United States, harks back to an annual feast held by Pilgrims and Indians in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the 1620s. Granted, from the centuries of injustices inflicted upon Native Americans since America was settled, this is a pretty rosy thing to call back to.

The holiday has been sanded of much of its history (though because of the general attitudes of relaxed-patriots and atheists alike, most public holidays eventually are), but there's something about the coast-to-coast breadth of the enthusiasm toward Thanksgiving - Pies! Football! Turkey! Family! Pumpkin-based everythings! - I've come to really respect.

The anticipation has been heightened this year by it not being my first rodeo. I can picture it. I know the joys that I am in for. (And the uncomfortable few hours of sleep lying on my back, digesting.)

Thanksgiving is the brightest spark among a plethora of historically focused holidays on the American calendar: Independence Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, President's Day, Columbus Day. America is a country that knows how to acknowledge itself and pay homage to its freedom, leaders, pioneers and soldiers.

Yes, the mythology of each of these days is drained a bit by the average person's apathy to history, but these days at least force people to consider why they have the day off work, right?  

But thinking about this always leads me to an odd conclusion: why are New Zealanders so bad at celebrating our own history?

Take Waitangi Day.

FlagsI generally associate our national day with two news stories that seem to run interchangeably each year: a report from Waitangi that features whoever our prime minister is at the time getting heckled by protesters (Don Brash had mud thrown at him) and one awkward news piece shot at Wellington's annual One Love festival that marks Bob Marley's birthday, complete with awkward sound bites from sunbaked stoners.

Living in Wellington for 10 years, each year all told I was more explicitly aware of Bob Marley's birthday than I was New Zealand's. The One Love festival has hit financial issues and has a questionable future, but it was easily a bigger part of the cultural landscape than Waitangi Day. 

We have Anzac Day on the calendar, but even that becomes occasionally fraught with protesters using it as an outlet to vent their frustrations about global military conflicts. And all of the remembrances take place at dawn, anyway, so for those of us wanting to catch a little day off work shut-eye, it's not the best. 

Sure, we have Christmas and Easter (we usually tend to muddy them too, with debates about closing hours, childhood obesity and political correctness) and Queen's Birthday and Labour Weekend (one is very vague in origin, the other very deferring to our colonial roots).

But too often we use these (too rare) national days as an excuse to turn on ourselves, looking inwards at our current faults (do holidays that celebrate eating make our kids fat?) or the fractures brought about by our history (what's the point in celebrating Waitangi Day if it is only an acknowledgment of the British land abuses our country is founded upon?).

America excels at looking to its past, without altogether forgetting the contentious elements in these national days. Thanksgiving in turn is an opportunity to celebrate national and familial togetherness over and above bitter recriminations and blame; Independence Day is an excuse to celebrate the wonders of the freedoms Americans do have, not the ones it fears it may one day lose; Memorial Day celebrates the courage of soldiers, not the politics of governments.  

I'm hoping that one day New Zealand gets the grip of this, that national days aren't just for sleep-ins or sober reflection on historical wrongs; it is also for looking at our country and our loved ones and feeling pleased to live where we do.

Maybe it is a self-awareness that we're not old enough to have developed yet or maybe we're just not the type for a one-eyed celebration.

I'm not too sure.

Maybe it's the prospect of all of the coming turkey making me sentimental, but there's something admirable about a nation coming together to take a little time off and break bread with each other.

It makes me feel a little devoid of custom, you know?  

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