If you think Independence Day is America’s defining holiday, think again. Thanksgiving deserves that title, hands-down.
This newsletter/column will go out on Friday, November 29, 2019. I am writing it on Wednesday, November 27, 2019. This week, we will celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States. Although Americans have celebrated some form of harvest festival since the founding of Jamestown, history records it was President Abraham Lincoln who first established a permanent, national observation of thanksgiving. He did so with a proclamation he signed on October 3, 1863, which stated in part:
“…to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
After 1863, while regional differences emerged with the celebration of Thanksgiving, future American Presidents annually declared the last Thursday in November as the official national observance of the holiday. Franklin Delano Roosevelt threw a wrench in the works in 1939, when November had five Thursdays, by declaring the fourth Thursday as the official day of observance. The reason was simple and economic: to expand the holiday shopping season by a full week, as the last Thursday in November 1939 would have been the 30th, the last day of the month.
It seems retailing was a little simpler back then, with fewer shopping outlets and far less advertising. As a result, people didn’t get around to their year-end shopping until AFTER Thanksgiving, quite literally. In 1939, towards the end of a difficult decade for the US economy, pushing the holiday forward by a week gave retailers and shoppers 31 days as opposed to 24 to get the goyim’s avarice under the tree. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Further, what is the likelihood you will spend a little more if you have more time to do so, huh?
In 1941, the Congress passed a resolution ‘permanently’ making the fourth Thursday of November as the official national Thanksgiving string in 1942. Perhaps interestingly, Texas was a holdout in adopting the new rules until 1956, holding onto the traditional final Thursday of the month…which was usually the fourth Thursday in any event.
So, for all intents and purposes, we celebrate Thanksgiving the day we do because of a desire to get Americans to spend more money during the period leading up to Christmas. Put another way, Thanksgiving is when it is because of, well, Black Friday. It was, and is, so important to the retail health of the economy ‘we’ actually had to invent it.
A Jewish friend of mine once said the same about Christmas. Although I laughed at that, he didn’t. He just gave me a look which suggested (if not screamed) he thought there was a lot of secularism in our religious holiday. Hmm, and again, hmm.
The great thing about Thanksgiving is people can make it their own. While the traditional feast consists of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, there is no end to variations ‘we’ have. It a celebration of communion, what it means to be an American, without having to give up who you are and what you like to eat.
For instance, it seems folks in New England like something called hasty pudding and creamed onions, or at least put them on the table. My parents grew up in Maryland, and we have had sauerkraut and dressing (similar to stuffing) with oysters in it on Thanksgiving my entire life. As I got older, I met people in business from New York who have manicotti with their turkey and cannoli alongside the pumpkin pie. People I met from Texas bragged about the tamales they made especially for the occasion. Long before it came somewhat commonplace around here, my friends from Louisiana would tell me about the miscues of frying their Thanksgiving turkey after one too many cold beers.
People in Kentucky seem to eschew pumpkin pie in favor of something called derby pie. Georgians opt for pecan pie, and so would I if given the choice. I have never had the wild rice casserole and stuffing folks in the upper Midwest enjoy, but I think I would. Personally, I prefer the cornbread stuffing most people around here (Alabama) have on Thanksgiving over the oyster dressing my mother always made. However, I can’t remember a single holiday where either collard greens or macaroni & cheese graced the table like they do at so many in the Deep South. We have always saved those things for BBQ joints.
I have never had cranberry sauce with chipotle peppers in it, let alone pumpkin empanadas or pumpkin flan, but it seems these dishes are popular throughout the Southwest. Sweet potatoes are a pass for me, of all types, which makes me somewhat unusual in the South. Conversely, I really like green bean casserole, made with cream of mushroom soup and canned green beans, which is a staple in the Midwest. The difference between cranberry relish and cranberry sauce? I couldn’t tell you, because I tend to have a slice of the stuff straight out of the can. Sashimi? Poke? Sesame turkey and sticky rice? Turkey shawarma? Hashweh? Gazed potatoes with tahini? Turducken? Milanesa? Pasteles?
Yes, to almost all of it, but not on Thanksgiving. There just isn’t enough room.
In many ways, Thanksgiving is a unifying factor, something that makes us all Americans, although it isn’t necessarily a requirement to be one. It seems some things cut across ethic and demographic lines; they are universal. It doesn’t matter where you live or what you look like, who doesn’t like a good meal? Who doesn’t like spending time with friends and family? If not family, at least people you like. Our Thanksgiving, formalized by Abraham Lincoln during the middle of the worst civil strife in our nation’s history, a conflict which cost hundreds of thousands of lives and whose scars we still bear, is one of the few things on which Americans can agree, or seemingly so.
You know, it is a good thing we already have it. It is a good thing Lincoln created an observation of hope, thanks, and praise in the middle of unbelievable strife. Sadly, if you reread the portion of the proclamation I included at the start of this column, what would be the likelihood our elected leaders would pass such language today? That they would be able to do so without much bickering and sniping? That they would create a day of thanksgiving without politicizing it to the point of meaninglessness?
Perhaps I am being cynical about the current state of affairs; however, I am not cynical about what Thanksgiving means for us as a country and, yes, what Black Friday means to us as an economy. You know, perhaps Thanksgiving is so important to the United States ‘we’ would have to invent if it didn’t already exist. Perhaps having one day out of the year when we can take a deep breath and appreciate what those who came and struggled before us built…and what we continue and struggle to build…is a good thing.
Perhaps? No, it IS a great thing, and I hope you had a very Happy Thanksgiving!
Have a great weekend.