This Thursday, November 24th, 2011, from approximately three in the afternoon to the very late hours of the night, the good people of The United States of America will be doing what they do best: eating. And eating more.
Along with the consumption of hoards of deliciously prepared traditional dishes like roasted turkey, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie, people all over the US will be doing the other thing they do best: spending quality time with family and friends. Thanksgiving Day will have arrived, and you can bet your best boots it’s gonna be a good ‘ol holiday time.
Flash back 12 years to the fourth Thursday of the month, and I’d be getting up early to put my “pilgrim clothes” on; the teddy bear apron fastened on backwards so only the white part showed, my hair tied up in a dishcloth, my black ‘Mary Janes’ with the buckle on, (because that’s what pilgrims wear of course). Soon I’d go and wake up my sisters.
Spending time in the kitchen with my mom and sisters preparing, baking, frying, stirring, chopping and kneading was one of my favorite parts of the day, and almost as good as eating it all. God only knows what the boys did on Thanksgiving morning. Hide I’d expect. Yet somehow they’d suddenly emerge hungry and anxious right on time as the turkey was being put on the table, fresh and steaming. Dad would say a nice (short) grace, saying thank you to God for the lovely meal, and all the things he’d given us, and then we’d dig in.
For all the hours of preparations, the eating only seemed to last a few minutes. But it was still worth it. I’d leave the candles on the table burning for as long as possible until the wax was dripping down onto the tablecloth and mom would holler at me to blow them out. I didn’t want it to end. Once we’d finally eaten dessert, I could put the Christmas music on. Christmas music is only allowed after Thanksgiving. It’s a rule or something. Tomorrow would be the Black Friday sale at the mall, the biggest shopping day of the year, and my parents along with half the country would be rushing around trying to get the best bargains for their kid’s stockings, and Thanksgiving Day would fade into the background of the forthcoming Christmas season for yet another year.
This year will be my first Thanksgiving away from home, but I’m not about to let it pass me by. It’s too important for that, too steeped in memory and tradition and delicious food, and life is too important to go through without saying “thank you” at least one time a year.
Growing up, my understanding of Thanksgiving was shaped by my history books and my Sunday school class, both which told a similar story: once upon a time in England in 1621, the Church of England ruled, and a group of separatists who wanted to worship God freely and flee persecution made a daring and treacherous journey to a “New World.” That world was America. They took a ship called the Mayflower, and landed near Plymouth Massachusetts to start a new life. The first winter was hard, and many of them died, unfamiliar with the land and how to grow food. They soon befriended the natives of the land, The Wampanoag people, who helped teach them how to survive the harsh winter. After the first successful harvest, the “pilgrims” had a great feast and invited the natives to celebrate with them and thank God for all he had provided. They wore black and white and had buckles on their shoes. That was the first Thanksgiving.
It’s a lovely, inspiring story, but it is very much just a story. In truth, there is not much known about the “pilgrims” who came to Massachusetts on the Mayflower, or what they did. It is certainly not recorded that a feast they had in the Autumn of 1621 was even a religious one, or that it continued annually thereafter. Indeed, Thanksgiving is not recognized as a day unto itself until 1789 by George Washington who called citizens to express gratitude for the successful war of independence, and then by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 who proclaimed an annual thanksgiving celebration, and finally in 1941 by Franklin D. Roosevelt who re-established the national holiday as the fourth Thursday of November.
An opposite version of the story I heard only upon arriving here was that the pilgrims fled England because there was too much religious “freedom” and they wanted to create a more conservative protestant society. These variations on events may simply imply the way either side would like to see them; we may never know.
We do know that the peace between the natives and settlers sadly only lasted a generation, though this part is usually left out of the story for reasons of tact. It’s not very nice to think about how we betrayed the natives after they had helped us whilst we’re slicing the Turkey open.
In truth, I do not believe the “history” of this particular holiday is very important to celebrating it. It certainly is only very vaguely related, and mostly irrelevant to current traditions. (Most people don’t dress up as pilgrims, that was just me.) That said, much of the classic dishes enjoyed seem to have been prevalent throughout history. We don’t know what the settlers ate during their harvest, but roast turkey and pumpkin pie are recorded as Thanksgiving menu staples from as early as the 1800’s, making these true American traditions. Other staples, like Campbell’s famous Green Bean Casserole didn’t make an appearance until the 1950’s.
Though Thanksgiving is essentially an American holiday, it is interesting to note that seven other nations also celebrate an annual day of gratitude. They are Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Korea, Liberia, and Switzerland, though their traditions all vary widely.
I love the concept of Thanksgiving; a holiday built around food and family and saying thanks. Never mind that its history is blurry and controversial at worst, childrens’ story-like at best. I can’t help but think that it hardly matters. The meaning behind Thanksgiving is not the pilgrims fleeing England or even (dare I say it?) the pecan pie, the meaning is when each person expresses gratitude for the things they have and the people in their lives, and celebrates them. It’s a day set thoroughly aside for that, for togetherness; one that I think everyone, American or not, can benefit from in some way.
Thanksgiving is a day dear to my heart that I will continue to celebrate no matter where in the world I am. Why not gather some of your own friends and family together this November 24th to express what you are thankful for (Pray) cook delicious, calorie-laden food (Eat) and spend time with the people you care about the most? (Love) You just can’t go wrong with a combination like that.