Thanksgiving may be my favorite holiday because it involves holding a feast in the face of on-coming winter. I read this as a sign that we believe the harvest bounty can carry us through the hard times. To accentuate the symbolism, I like my Thanksgivings to be cold and even a bit wet.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight helps us understand the symbolism. As I interpret it, the 14th-century poem is about affirming life in the face of death, and the sumptuous images of food help make that point. In the story, Gawain has agreed to exchange blows with a magical Green Knight, who simply retrieves his head when Gawain cuts it off. A year later Gawain must show up for the return blow in what he knows is a rendezvous with death.
His journey begins at harvest time at the end of September. I quote from the Marie Borroff translation:
But harvest with harsher winds follows hard after,
Warns him to ripen well ere winter comes;
Drives forth the dust in the droughty season
From the face of the fields to fly high in air.
Wroth winds in the welkin wrestle with the sun,
The leaves launch from the linden and light on the ground,
And the grass turns to gray, that once grew green.
Then all ripens and rots that rose up at first
And so the year moves on in yesterdays many,
And winter once more, by the world’s law,
At Michaelmas the moon
Hangs wintry pale in sky;
Sir Gawain girds him soon
For travails yet to try.
The feast occurs within a luxurious castle that Gawain stumbles across when he is nearly perishing with cold. Or rather, the castle shows up when he prays to the Virgin Mary for help. The castle itself is a feast for the senses. Here’s a description:
They pass into a parlor, where promptly the host
Has a servant assigned him to see to his needs
And there came upon his call many courteous folk
That brought him to a bower where bedding was noble,
With heavy silk hangings hemmed all in gold,
Coverlets and counterpanes curiously wrought,
A canopy over the couch, clad all with fur,
Curtains running on cords, caught to gold rings,
Woven rugs on the walls of eastern work
And the floor, under foot, well-furnished with the same.
The food matches the setting:
Then attendants set a table upon trestles broad,
And lustrous white linen they laid thereupon,
A saltcellar of silver, spoons of the same.
He washed himself well and went to his place,
Men set his fare before him in fashion most fit.
There were soups of all sorts, seasoned with skill,
Double-sized servings, and sundry fish,
Some baked, some breaded, some broiled on the coals,
Some simmered, some in stews, steaming with spice,
And with sauces to sup that suited his taste.
He confesses it a feast with free words and fair;
They requite him as kindly with courteous jests,
“Tonight you fast and pray;
Tomorrow we’ll see you fed.”
The knight grows woundrous gay
As the wine goes to his head.
I believe the Green Knight, who is lord of the castle, wants Gawain to treasure life in all of its vivid here-and-now. Gawain will learn to do so only if he gets out of his head and comes to appreciate the gifts of nature. It’s not easy for him to do so. The Green Knight must take Gawain to the edge of death before he realizes just how beautiful and precious life is. It is significant that the poem’s hunt scenes, with their graphic images of death, are always followed up by festival images of eating.
A I write this I think of my friend Alan, dying of cancer, who sees gifts of life everywhere. In every walk in nature, in every sunset over the water, in every conversation with friends, in every moment with his wife Jackie. He hears what the Green Knight is trying to tell Gawain.
As for Gawain, for a moment he steps outside of the codes that define him and experiences the rush of life. He stops thinking about whether he’s doing everything a good knight should be doing, and everything a good Christian should be doing, and everything a good courtier should be doing, and instead grasps the green girdle of life. Then, however, he starts backtracking, ashamed of what he sees as a weakness. It’s unclear where he is at the end of the poem.
The rest of us don’t need to back away. Thanksgiving is a reminder to move beyond the cares the plague us, the hang-ups that eat away at us, and enter fully into gratitude for all our blessings.