Every year, my grandmother makes pumpkin chiffon pie. She’s been baking it for my entire life. She’s been making it for my mother’s entire life. She’s been pressing it in, filling it up, and dolloping it on top for her entire adult life. Each year, I follow her around the kitchen and keep a watchful and inquisitive eye on her process. She begins by making the crust. A graham cracker crust made with Honey Maid cinnamon graham crackers pulsed in a food processor with plenty of melted butter. ‘Until it looks like sand’, she repeats year after year. She whips unsweetened canned pumpkin, but never canned pumpkin pie, in a glass bowl and adds cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and vanilla. She sprinkles caster sugar into the bowl, and the mixture spatters the sides as she whisks and whisks. She holds the pyrex bowl high above the crust, and she gently tilts the lip of the bowl downwards. In a slow stream, aromatic pumpkin cascades into the dish and covers the golden crust with a thick, rust colored pool. With a satisfied smile and quick nod, she pops the pie into the oven and snaps the door shut. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without her pumpkin chiffon pie. For her, it’s a ritual. For us, it’s tradition.
Now that the kids are older and our family is more disparate, the traditions that make our holidays feel like home wherever we are in the world revolve around food, but not all family rituals and traditions center on the supper. Some choose to go for walks; others delight in strolling to the neighbor’s house for a drink or two; some play board games; others still participate in a local Turkey Trot; some watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; and others play football outside. The list of traditions is as unique and expansive as the people who create them. Henry Glassie once wrote, ‘Tradition is the creation of the future out of the past.’ This harmonious meeting between past and future in our present that lends Thanksgiving traditions their special magic. A mix of interpersonal, familial rituals and national, communal traditions, the last Thursday of November is a special day throughout the United States, but it all began right here in Massachusetts.
Even before the first settlers arrived, the Wampanoags, an American tribe with deep roots on the South Shore, celebrated the abundance of the harvest. Through special ceremonies expressing gratitude, the Wampanoags honored nature, celebrated good fortune, and hoped for the continuation of abundance. When the Settlers arrived in 1621, they too celebrated the harvest, and they incorporated some of the foods and customs indigenous to the region along with the traditions they brought with them from English harvest festivals. In short, both Wampanoag and English settlers’ traditions changed. With further immigration and assimilation, people of all backgrounds brought their traditions and rituals to the Thanksgiving table in order to create the great American holiday we have today. As we become a more globalized and interconnected world, beautiful and delicious creations like pumpkin chiffon pie appear on our dinner tables. Turkeys and Turduckens became the centerpiece of the meal, rather than the hyper-traditional and true-to-the-time Vennison that the Pilgrims ate. As we move homes and cycle through life, our traditions change, but the emotions they evoke remain. Whether it’s a new spin on pumpkin chiffon pie or an old family game revived, let’s be inspired to create new traditions in old spaces, to adjust old traditions to new places.