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Happy Thanksgiving!

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Antique PostcardDoesn't it feel in the past several years that Thanksgiving has received "a bad rap" as well as drowning in the increasing hysteria that surrounds the Christmas holidays? While searching for Thanksgiving-oriented material on the Web, I even found an essay stating that Thanksgiving should be banned—the reasons? Well, first of all, because we were celebrating a feast that later led to the Native Americans losing their land and human rights. Then secondly because turkeys are raised in abusive conditions. And lastly because we should be giving thanks all year long.

Seems to me we're throwing out the baby with the bathwater here.

First, there is no way we can go back and undo what happened in the previous three centuries. The Native American people in this country was grievously used, but by a society that thought in a radically different manner than we do. That doesn't make society's actions correct, but it is simply impossible to judge 17th century men by the mores of the present century. We cannot politically correct history! Doing so is a form of censorship as insidious as book banning and burning. Rather, we should understand our ancestors' reasons for their actions—then avoid making such insensitive and abusive value judgments in the future.

As for the abuse of turkeys, Thanksgiving isn't solely responsible for their plight any longer. With a continued emphasis on healthy eating due to rising obesity rate, turkey breast meat is one of the few things that is considered healthy for people seeking to improve their diet. In fact, things are worse for the poor turkey today because all that is desired is that breast meat—and now all year long! What used to be consumed just at Thanksgiving dinner or made into turkey soup is now ground up as feed for other animals or thrown away.

As for being thankful all year 'round—well, face it, most people are too busy with life to even remember. Buried under bills and baby needs, workloads and wishful thinking, we don't take the time to see what good things have gone along with the bad. Even being thankful at Thanksgiving is hard. The classic Thanksgiving of folklore did exist once upon a time: people got together to celebrate a good harvest, celebrate the near closing of another year, celebrate being together again with family and friends. You ate heartily because winter was coming—food might be scarce. You ate heartily because eating is a blessing, eating with family or friends doubly so.

Thanksgiving today is different. People don't need to overstuff themselves, but they do—because it's "tradition." Well-fed families stuff themselves from groaning tables because it's expected. Then someone is saddled with clean up while everyone else goes to stare at a football game on television. The kids sneak off to play a video game or listen to music. Very few people hold dances, play games together, or sit around the table reminiscing as in the classic stories. So after "the big meal," you sit limply in a kitchen chair, distended, surrounded by dirty dishes in a room that looks as if a bomb exploded in it, listening to a bunch of people in your family room screaming about a botched forward pass. In addition, maybe you've had a bad year. Very few of us would care to give thanks for more debt, a "totaled" car, a bad medical diagnosis, a deceased family member. It's understandable. Perhaps you're alone. Doesn't seem much to be thankful about unless you work with people constantly and really want some time to yourself.

But the solution isn't to throw Thanksgiving out: it's to give it a new—or maybe an old—spin. Remember that Thanksgiving itself has nothing to do with ersatz Pilgrims and Indians and fat turkeys; they are rather symbols that have become as associated with the holiday as snowmen, Santa Claus, and reindeer have with the Christmas holidays. Most of what we know as the traditional Thanksgiving celebration...the Pilgrims, the Indians, the feast...were created whole cloth by the Victorians and later emphasized for immigrants in the early 20th century. Put the spin you want on Thanksgiving. Make your Thanksgiving a time for families and/or friends to get together and enjoy being with each other, not an electronic box or a grease-soaked kitchen.

Do you feel the holiday's gotten too worldly?

Remember to give thanks on other days, too. If you think "thanks" should last all year 'round, do volunteer service:

In other words, serve of yourself rather than from a turkey.

Maybe the biggest problem with Thanksgiving is, as my husband says, that "It's now a wholly owned subsidiary of Christmas, Inc." It gets lost in a society drowning in Christmas decorations from the moment Labor Day is over (with Halloween hitting it big in the meantime). Well, this isn't the place to go into the excesses of the Christmas season—but this year and in the future, maybe we can keep Thanksgiving as a quiet time where we can celebrate what good things we do have, and think about what good we'd like in our future.

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THANKSGIVING MEMORIES

Pilgrim lass celebrates Thanksgiving

In the early 60s, teachers didn't allow Christmas to creep into the classroom too early. Before Thanksgiving, we would have had Veteran's Day (or as my folks still called it, Armistice Day) exercises—there wasn't a kid in our school who couldn't sing the various military service songs from our battered singing books, ones like "Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder" or "The Cassions Go Rolling Along," or recite "In Flanders Fields"—and only then did we prepare for Thanksgiving.

There was always some Thanksgiving project to put up on the big corkboard at the back of the classroom, using construction paper cutouts highlighted with crayon. Sometimes it had to do with the classic Pilgrims and Indians, sometimes with a bountiful harvest and giving food. (There was always a Thanksgiving "can drive" right before the holiday.) No photocopiers existed, so the school was sharp with the scent of fresh "ditto" paper—nothing brings back school memories for baby boomers like the odor of "ditto" ink—as handouts appeared. The older children would receive history quizzes or spelling associated with the holiday, while the smaller children dutifully colored in turkeys in dozens of rainbow colors. History and geography classes might concentrate on New England. There would be Thanksgiving readings, and of course a big Thanksgiving assembly on the day before the holiday.

At home, we would have watched some of our favorite TV series have Thanksgiving episodes for the few days (not a few weeks!) before the holiday; we might also watch a Thanksgiving movie about Plymouth or maybe even a cartoon or a Thanksgiving episode of Davey and Goliath.

Some kids had memories of great food in their homes after Thanksgiving, but in ours that wasn't traditional. I was an only child, and back then turkeys only came in "supersizes" for big families. Compounding the problem was that my mom's little Glenwood stove didn't have the oven to fit one of those big birds—and, secretly, she was never very fond of turkey, either. She complained hers always came out dry—and what on earth would we do with all those leftovers? However, this didn't mean a lack of goodies in the household: Mom would make cookies, buy a squash pie for dessert, and a little Table Talk apple pie for me. We might even have some Hershey's kisses or fruit candies.

Since we were usually invited to my Grandfather's house for Christmas dinner, on Thanksgiving we were on our own. That was fine with me, though, because I remember how we celebrated with great affection.

Thanksgiving morning would "officially" begin about ten minutes to nine, when I crept from my warm bed in the rear of the house and into the chilly living room—by now the trees were stripped of leaves and the lawn brown; the living room faced north and the front door would be locked for the season, with rags stuffed in the cracks to keep out the draft—to turn on the television for the parades. Some of my friends watched the Macy's parade on NBC, but I preferred CBS, where they showed four parades including Macy's, usually leaving it for last with the grand arrival of Santa Claus. There was no Walt Disney parade or one from Hawaii then, but three others: Gimbel's parade from Philadelphia, JL Hudson's from Detroit, and the Eaton Santa Claus Parade in Toronto. Gimbel's parade was sure to have a smattering of mummers, and the Eaton's parade always featured storybook characters, including British ones that I'd never heard of except on the morning of the parade. Originally the CBS extravaganza was hosted by Captain Kangaroo and the theme music was a rousing John Philip Sousa march. Today I can't hear that march without thinking of Thanksgiving morning. Later, William Conrad sat in a plush, masculine den sipping eggnog to host the spectacle, while the celebrities du jour shivered out on the city streets.

Daddy would eventually come to watch the parades with me, but Mom was always cleaning house, and of course making breakfast. We had eggnogs back then, with fresh Hood's milk (no cream) and eggs directly from Stamp's Farm, and just enough sugar to taste, not like that thick, sweet goo that comes out at Christmastime in a jar or carton. They usually had cereal, and I would have stolen one or two of the freshly baked wine biscuits to munch as the black-and-white images marched by.

The final few commercial breaks were reserved for dressing. You definitely didn't go out on Thanksgiving Day in casual clothes back then, so it was on with dresses or suits and thick stockings as befit the frosty weather. Lastly you'd put on Sunday shoes (which always hurt no matter how well they'd been fitted), and when the parades were over, it was into coats, hats and gloves and off to dinner.

This was one of the few times of the year we ate at a big fancy restaurant. Although Daddy longed to go other places, and one year we tried another restaurant, only to be disappointed, we always ended up at the same place, a place called Venetian Gardens on the road to Oakland Beach. It was owned by one of his "compadres" and had once been a supper club in the 1940s and 1950s. It was still breathtakingly elegant to a small girl: a hat-check "girl" who took your coats until you were done, a cigarette girl with a shining tray suspended from her neck just like in the movies, elegantly dressed waiters, spotless white tablecloths with shining crystalware and silver. We always had turkey, of course, because that was tradition, even Mom (who usually begged extra gravy from the waiter).

Thanksgiving calendarWe might have coffee afterwards, but no dessert. When we were finished with the meal, we would "take a ride" for an hour or two, perhaps down to Narragansett Pier or to the Point Judith lighthouse despite the cold, to digest our dinner and give the family a chance to eat theirs. Once we'd let a little time pass and given the relatives time to eat a typical Italian Thanksgiving dinner—which of course included lasagna and spaghetti and antipasto along with turkey, butternut squash, mashed potatoes and all the trimmings—we were expected over Papá's house for dessert: hot fragrant coffee or soda for the kids, homemade pies and Italian cookies. As on Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day, first the whole family, including all the kids, would get to play Pokeno, then the men would sit down and have a poker game while the women talked and we kids played (but not too roughly, because we were still in miniature suits and starched dresses with stiff netted slips underneath), or spied on the grownups. Only later did we learn what all those grownup words like "miscarriage" and "mortgage" meant.

Finally we'd have to leave for home because Daddy always had to work the next day, but in "kidland" it was still a holiday: a day off from school. When I was very small, the day after Thanksgiving was the day all the television networks showed Saturday morning cartoons. These lasted until noon. Then kid-friendly movies like Gypsy Colt or Tom Thumb would be broadcast, and the first of the Christmas movies might appear. This custom waned, and nevertheless I had more interesting things to do as I grew older: in the morning Mom and I would take the early bus downtown and go to Confession, have breakfast, and then do Christmas shopping. By the time the crowds got thick, we were already on the bus home.

And then it would be time for the best holiday of the year!

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TWO FAMOUS THANKSGIVING SONGS

It wouldn't be Thanksgiving if we didn't mention the two most famous Thanksgiving songs of all, one secular and one religious.

The first, the long version printed below, is the childhood classic, Lydia Maria Child's "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day," a.k.a. "Over the River and Through the Wood." Nope, they're not going to Grandmother's (or Grandfather's, rather) house for Christmas. A very particularly Northern New England poem! The rhythm simulates the trotting of a horse and the entire atmosphere is that of jubilation despite the cold, with the vocabulary so evocative of the 19th century.

Horse and Sleigh

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top
for 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood-
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose,
as over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood.
with a clear blue winter sky,
The dogs do bark and the children hark,
as we go jingling by.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring, "Ting a ling ding!"
Hurray for Thanksgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood-
no matter for winds that blow;
Or if we get the sleigh upset
into a bank of snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to see little John and Ann;
We will kiss them all, and play snowball
and stay as long as we can.

Over the river, and through the wood,
trot fast my dapple gray!
Spring over the ground like a hunting-hound!
For 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood
and straight through the barnyard gate.
We seem to go extremely slow-
it is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood-
Old Jowler hears our bells;
He shakes his paw with a loud bow-wow,
and thus the news he tells.

Over the river, and through the wood-
when Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, "O, dear, the children are here,
bring pie for everyone."

Over the river, and through the wood-
now Grandmothers cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

About Lydia Maria Child, who was an abolitionist in an era that did not support them.

The second is that quintessential Thanksgiving hymn,

"We Gather Together"

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,
Sing praises to His name: He forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side, All glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
And pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

Learn more about this famous piece of music in A Hymn's Long Journey Home: The Surprising Origins of "We Gather Together," a Thanksgiving Standard.

Incidentally, this isn't the version I learned. I was so very puzzled the first time I watched the "Home From Home" segment of Alistair Cooke's America segment and heard them singing the three verses stated above. Apparently there is a Catholic version that contains the following verse, which is what I remember:

We gather together to sing the Lord's praises,
To worship the Father through Jesus His son.
In this celebration all sing with jubilation;
We are His holy people whose freedom He won.

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THANKSGIVING POETRY AND VINTAGE POSTCARDS

"As Yellow as Gold"

Here is a pumpkin, fluted, golden,
Written o'er with customs olden
Out of bygone days.
Cinderella's ancient glory,
Sung in song and told in story,
Suits its yellow blaze.

Tables at the first Thanksgiving,
When colonial dames where living,
Shewed its golden sheer.
Still it smiles a friendly greeting
At the happy family meeting
On the feast-day dear

Christmas rooms are gay with holly,
Christmas sees the merry folly
Of the mistletoe.
Easter lilies, pure and stately,
In the springtime bloom sedately,
When soft breezes blow.

Autumn dressed the woods in splendor;
But their colors, rich and tender,
All have passed away.
Now the pumpkin, ripe and mellow,
Keeps a tint of Autumn's yellow
For Thanksgiving Day.

Mary E. Knowlton (1904)

Boy with turkey on pushcart
"Horn of Plenty"

If I had a horn of plenty to fill,
I would take from the field, take from the hill.
I'd not spare the garden its green and gold;
I'd ask of the bee; I'd ask of the fold.

Just so does our God, who has mouths to feed—
For the world is hungry, and all have a need—
As He gives us water and sun and air,
Supplying our wants with infinite care.

I do have a horn of plenty to fill,
By lending a hand and doing God's will
All through the summer and into the fall—
When the first leaf reddens, the last geese call.

May God's horn of plenty fill to the brim
And a day of Thanksgiving be held for Him.

Minnie Klemme

Turkey

"Home for Thanksgiving"

A hundred miles of singing road
Where hill-caped farmlands fall and rise
With gaping bins of yellow grain
And pumpkin gold and harvest skies.
The hillside home the heart knows well,
The warmth where open arms await,
The sweets and spice all nostril-nice,
The turkey-stuffing-laden plate—
This feast with loved ones a world away,
All mine by journey of heart today.

Angela Gall

Turkey and Grapes

"Thanksgiving Inventory"

I thank Thee, Lord, for beauties such as these
Out of the dying year's abundant yield:
The first long strands on weeping-willow trees,
The rich brown furrows of a new-plowed field.

Sunset clouds like chariots of fire,
A mountain lake of deep, mysterious blue,
Exultant music of a linnet choir,
The scent of roses, cool and fresh with dew.

Frost-turned maples in a hilltop row,
Bins of corn and dancing bonfire lights,
Arms of cedars sagging under snow,
Drifts of wind-blown stars on clear, cold nights.

I thank Thee, Lord, for beauties given me;
I pray I gave some lovely thing to Thee.

Sudie Stuart Hager

Uncle Sam and turkey

"Look for Things"

Look for things to be thankful for:
A dear old face at an open door,
The table set for the family meal,
A husband's love that is true as steel.

A cushioned chair that you fixed yourself,
Your favorite books on a nearby shelf,
A green-hued twilight that sort of glows,
The clean, fresh smell of a brier rose.

An old windjammer that you recall
Beating its way through an April squall,
Its old sides crusted with salty spray,
Limping in at the close of day.

The lovely odor of lemon peel;
A humble man with a flaming zeal
For a worthy cause that he thinks is right;
The feeling of warmth on a winter night.

Look for things to be thankful for:
A braided rug on your bedroom floor,
A dormer window with curtains drawn,
A bluebird singing across the lawn.

So much to be thankful for these days,
So much to enjoy and love and praise.

Edna Jaques

Turkey and eagle

"Thanksgiving Wings"

In autumn mists the pheasants fly
Across the cornfield's steepled sky.
The gypsy leaves come drifting down
In amber, rust, and burnished brown.

Ripe grapes flash jewels from each vine;
On hazy hills, persimmons shine;
The russet pears on laden trees
Are swaying in the wind-swept breeze.

Red apples with their scents to please
Are luring all the searching bees.
Fertile fields of hay are reaped;
In silos, fragrant feed lies heaped.

Chestnuts and walnuts carpet the ground;
Squirrels make raids on banquet found.
Gold-flecked yams, not far away,
Join pumpkin globes in bright display.

From fruitful earth is bounty spilled;
From glorious blessings, life's winders filled.
To celebrate, we praise and sing
With hearts uplifted on Thanksgiving wings.

Elisabeth Weaver Winstead

Kids and pumpkin

Fourth Thursday in November

He sits backwards on the bird bath
As if scorning
Such a thing as bathing
This near-winter morning.
A think skim of ice
Is on the water, he must know,
For he turns about and tests it
With a cautious toe.
Startled, taking wing,
To hear breaking ice clink,
He flutters, alights again,
Takes a brief drink,
Before he dives in
With beak and feather
In this most excellent
Bathing weather!
Shakes off the water,
Glad he's living,
And bursts into a cardinal's
Carol of thanksgiving.

Kunigunde Duncan

Thanksgiving girl
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THANKSGIVING LINKS

turkey icon Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Website
turkey icon Holiday Net's Thanksgiving Site
turkey icon Plymouth, Massachusetts
turkey icon Plimouth Plantation
turkey icon Louisa May Alcott's "An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving"
turkey icon Billy Bear's Thanksgiving
turkey icon The First Thanksgiving for Kids
turkey icon Top 10 Myths About Thanksgiving
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Thanksgiving from a Native American viewpoint

turkey icon Native American Heritage Month
turkey icon Kate.net Thanksgiving
turkey icon Thanksgiving on the History Channel
turkey icon The Smithsonian's Thanksgiving Page
turkey icon BlackDog's Thanksgiving Fun and Games
turkey icon Thanksgiving at the Holiday Zone
  
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