Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past
The “gateway holiday”, that’s what Thanksgiving was when I was young. It was when mom cooked and complained all day, cooking only for the three of us: dad, me and herself. But mostly it was the day I watched the entire Thanksgiving Day parade on TV just for the moment when Santa Claus would ascend the hastily built stage at the parade’s end, announcing to me and all the boys and girls in the world that soon Christmas would be here and he was ready to do his job on Christmas Eve, delivering toys to all of us young, eager and unknowingly greedy tots who wanted all they could get. I knew the following day, Friday, was the beginning of Joy to the World, carols sung by a choir, decorated store fronts and endless showings of A Christmas Carol, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and It’s A Wonderful Life on television.
That was tomorrow though, today it was still Thanksgiving. This was the holiday when, in school, we hung up the cardboard cutouts of Pilgrims and Native Americans, and horn-of-plenties overflowing with fruits and vegetables. We learned about the first Thanksgiving in 1621 when the pilgrims, near starvation due to a harsh winter and unprepared for the wilderness of North America, were saved by the indigenous peoples who educated them in methods of how to grow corn and other vegetables: agricultural education that sustained those early settlers. In gratitude, the pilgrims invited them to a feast, the first Thanksgiving meal, often depicted taking place outside, all of them standing before a long table overflowing with a plethora of fruits and vegetables surrounding an enormous cooked turkey. Considering the holiday occurs the last Thursday of November this scenario is not likely, unless these early pilgrims were of such hearty stock that the biting cold and short days meant little. It’s my guess that that meal occurred sometime earlier in the calendar year and it wasn’t until Dec. 26, 1941 that Congress passed a law making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November.
Later, after these early English settlers broke bread with the local natives they deemed them a menace – mostly because they wanted their land – and drove them from their native habitat by force. Fact is that within years of Columbus’ men entering the North American continent in 1492 nearly 80% to 85% of all indigenous peoples in the New World were eradicated by disease, scourges of small pox and other illnesses that they had no resistance against. Such knowledge we were never taught in school, that the Indians who empowered the early pilgrims to construct their own survival were already a rare and vanishing people.
Nonetheless, we have Thanksgiving. A federal holiday since 1863 when Abraham Lincoln ordered it as such. It’s older than that, though. A proclamation by George Washington in 1789 brought it to light for the colonies as a means to be thankful for all that God had given them.
In my house, the holiday was habit more than tradition. For most of my years living with my parents it was only the three of us sitting down to a quiet meal then leaving the cleaning up for mom. There wasn’t any hand-holding, bowing of heads or even grace. Eat and run was our family style. It wasn’t until later, when I was older did Thanksgiving become the feast it purports to be. From a certain point in the timeline of my life the holiday became a busy one, crowded with family, friends, girlfriends, grandchildren – the list grew each year. The dining room table leafs were in place and every chair in the house was moved to the dining room. Folding tables and trays, like circling wagons, were set up around the table’s perimeter. Whatever food dish you sat next to, that was your assignment, to ensure its equal distribution to all those seated to your left and right. You were responsible for that food’s journey through the mayhem of plates and bowls, to oversee it’s passage from your hands, through the near cataclysmic foraging of hands holding knives and spoons stabbing at its contents. Your duty was to return the now empty bowl to its place of origin, on the tray next to you.
But it was now a wonderful holiday, different from the Thanksgivings of my youth. It was a time I never fully appreciated until it was gone. After I had my own home and the meal took place at my dining room table, I wondered whether these meals would become memories my now grown children would hold onto. My parents, though well along in years, still broke bread with the Mrs and I for a number of these holidays, but somehow the energy changed. The meaning clouded with the tensions of living, of the television on in the living room tuned into football, of too much food on the table and most of it destined to become leftovers. Giving thanks was embarrassing again, grace was often my task and the lack of my sincerity was apparent.
If we could do it over again, I think we could get it right. But life doesn’t work like that.
Is there a lesson here? Damn straight! Don’t lose the Thanksgiving holiday to the mainstream vogue of celebrating Christmas from August on, to fast living, short attention spans and smartphones. Spend it with family, invite friends, cook too much food, enshroud yourselves with tables and trays and smile at the ensuing chaos that is the Thanksgiving meal. You must be aware that there are millions in this world who could only dream for as much. Before you know it you will come to realize there was so much to be thankful for and better you revel in that moment when you can then regret later that you didn’t. Life is too short with so many unwelcome surprises and it may very well be that someone who sits in merriment at your holiday meal this year are a memory at the next one.
RjCook is the author of The Road Behind Me & Dream Lover and Other Tales. Click HERE for info.