Thanksgivings Come and Gone: Not So Funny

Laughing Rats, Starving Pilgrims, and One Ticked-off Judge

Credit: Adam Zyglis/CagleCartoons.com

PASS THE GRAVY:  Of all the many traits shared by humans and rats, laughter is my favorite. Scientists have discovered that rats giggle when you — or other rats, for that matter — tickle their bellies. I have not tried this myself, but I will take their word for it. But this information flies in the face of everything scientists thought they knew about laughter.

We were told that laughter evolved when our brains got really big, and when we learned to stand upright and walk on two feet. Laughter was supposedly invented 10-16 million years ago as a means to create a joyous sense of unity among people otherwise struggling to shoehorn themselves into the increasingly complex social structures upon which their very survival depends.

In other words, laughter is a necessary social lubricant that keeps us from killing one another. Or, perhaps more immediately, from getting killed. 

All this is highly relevant right now with Thanksgiving looming in our collective rearview mirror. 


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People frequently lament all the necessary tongue-biting they have to endure for them to survive their Thanksgiving meal. At the Thanksgivings I have been lucky to attend, no one bites their tongue. No one talks so much as shouts. And after the shouting, we move onto the main course — laughter. Drooling, stupid laughter. Can’t-breathe laughter. Can’t-walk-to-the-bathroom laughter.

And I have no idea what about.

Thanks to COVID, that will not be happening this year. Our friends from New Mexico will not be coming. Neither will our friends from L.A. Nor will we see our friends from Santa Barbara. There will be no gathering of the tribes. No stupid, drooling hooting in joyous unity. 

This COVID shit’s for real. 

At the first Thanksgiving back in 1621, I don’t know how much laughter there was. According to the one eyewitness to ever write about the event, about 100 people showed up. Two-thirds were members of the Wampanoag tribe. They’d taken pity on the Pilgrim settlers, about half of whom had died since arriving in September 1620. The Wampanoag people taught them — among other things — how to plant corn. For the feast, there was venison and fish. Mashed potatoes had not been invented yet, the importation of potatoes from South America still being many years away. Pumpkin pie was still awaiting discovery. 

There was much dissension among the Wampanoag people — who at that time had been around for 10,000 years — about the wisdom of their chief’s kindness and generosity. But the chief, worried about various plots to unseat him, felt the need to create alliances with the ass-bedraggled English settlers as a way of hedging his bets.

As bets would go, this might be the worst ever in the history of the world. 

But here we are, indirectly, as a result.

At the time, the Wampanoag, as well as other Northeastern tribes, were in the throes of devastating epidemics. Historians speculate that rats had jumped off the English ships and carried measles and other European diseases into their villages. 

It would be many centuries before scientists would discover rats could giggle when tickled.

It would be another 242 years before that one glorious meal in 1621 would become proclaimed an American national holiday. On October 3, 1863 — a few months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation — President Abraham Lincoln did just that. At the time, the nation was violently divided in the Civil War; still, he harbored a sentimental optimism in the healing power of a shared meal. 

At the risk of descending into partisan politics, it should be noted that Lincoln was a Republican, the first ever to occupy the White House. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, the current occupant of the White House — also a Republican — is refusing to acknowledge he lost the election by about 5 million votes. 

In this context, I’d like to call your attention to a recent ruling of United States District Judge Matthew Gann from Pennsylvania, who is not only a Republican but a member of the same Federalist Society upon which Trump has so relied in nominating appointees — about 250 — to the federal bench, not to mention the three he’s now appointed to the Supreme Court. 

Gann rejected a challenge filed by Rudy Giuliani on behalf of Donald Trump to freeze the certification of Pennsylvania’s election results, which Joe Biden won by 80,000 votes. Gann dismissed Trump’s case as a “Frankenstein’s monster haphazardly stitched together.” He expressed offense that Trump and Giuliani were effectively seeking to set aside the ballots cast by 6.8 million voters. “The Court has been unable to find any case in which a plaintiff has sought such a drastic remedy in terms of sheer volume of votes asked to be invalidated. One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption.” That, he noted, did not take place. “Instead this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations…. In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populous state.”

Since then, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has affirmed Gann’s opinion.

I know this doesn’t settle anything. But it should. Gann’s ruling might help even the Reddest and Bluest among us to find just enough of a common ground to get through a Thanksgiving dinner.

Clearly, it didn’t work for Lincoln, so maybe it could work for us. 

Excepting, of course, this year, Thanksgiving will be a more constrained affair.

In the meantime, please pass the gravy. And all that laughing you’re hearing — it’s not just the rats.

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