2017 has been a tumultuous and divisive year, to say the least. As it finally comes to a close, the frenzy of the holiday season is accompanied by an underlying level of strain and stress that’s amplified by family reunions that are part and parcel to these traditional celebrations. Breaking bread across the table from relatives and creating small talk that tiptoes around polarizing issues you avoid like that shady fruit salad your aunt brought is like a rite of passage in America.
Last year a post-election fallout without some of the members of my family left me torn and unsure of my own holiday traditions. During this time of uncertainty that made me question my convictions and my sense of independence as an adult, I wrapped the familiarity and comfort of the Thanksgiving episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer around myself like a warm, cozy blanket.
Yes, we’re thinking of the same episode. “Pangs” is sprinkled with violence like brown sugar on top of a sweet potato casserole; each of the characters experience different kinds of pangs, and watching it all unfold creates a sense of camaraderie that helps heal mine. “Pangs” provides an unflinching look at this holiday, where it came from, and how it actually should be celebrated.
Although the origins of the holiday are quite the opposite of what we celebrate now, Thanksgiving has evolved into a day where families get together in gratitude for what we have. This episode of Buffy not only examines how the Thanksgiving holiday started and what we as Americans have turned it into, but it also takes a heartfelt look at each member of the Scooby Gang and how they’re dealing with the changes each one is facing. Buffy is feeling homesick, and Willow is trying to let go of her high school sweetheart while beginning to come into her own. Xander is trying to make his way through a post-high-school world without the pursuit of a college education. Giles doesn’t really have a job or a set path anymore, and Spike is, well, neutered.
Buffy, in her freshman year of college, is feeling a bit displaced, clinging to her childhood with the notion of a basted turkey and fluffy mashed potatoes. First, her tradition is broken when her mother decides to visit another family member. Then her best friend brings the violent and oppressive origins of the holiday to her attention, further fracturing the familiarity she craves. As Buffy tries to replicate her mother’s Thanksgiving dinner, the deeper she digs her heels into the blissful attachment to blind tradition, the worse things get. Food gets ruined, Xander gets syphilis, and undead members of the ancient Chumash tribe attack Giles’ home in an act of vengeance, forcing the Slayer to let go of some of the shallow comforts of childhood and rebuild her holidays as an adult with her own traditions.
Growing up requires more than just moving out of your parents’ house (unless you’re Xander) and paying your own bills. Stepping out on your own means coming to terms with the real history of traditions, creating your own opinions, and in many cases, creating your own traditions and choosing your own family. Buffy’s band of misfits left sitting around the dinner table together warms my queer heart as a message that there is a place for everyone.
As I watch a vampire, a trio of best friends, and a symbolic father figure come together to forge their own path forward, I realize that creating a safe space for those we care about embodies the real meaning we should apply to Thanksgiving, and how we should honor those who have been displaced. Some traditions are best left in the past, and others are meant to evolve along with us.
America works itself up into a frantic ball of expectation and excitement during the holidays, highlighting the frivolity of a perfect meal and a cookie-cutter table setting in order to fit the mold instead of break it. Thanksgiving, with an origin soaked in violence and bloodshed that’s coated in cranberry sauce is, as Buffy says, a sham with yams. Or, as Anya delicately describes it, a ritual sacrifice with pie. Either way, Thanksgiving began with a truly awful event that’s been glazed over for the purposes of indulgence. It’s a gathering of people who have little in common, made more pleasant by the inclusion of delicious food, but it doesn’t have to be.
From now on, I choose to be the Scoobies and buck tradition, because Thanksgiving isn’t about sugar coating, and it isn’t about a certain place or a specific meal, although pie is definitely a perk. I choose to honor the past while moving forward into the future, forming and celebrating my chosen family, and forging a path while leaving a trail for those who need to know where they will always be able to have a place to go. Plus, I make a terrific pie.