Random Musings: A look at Thanksgiving traditions

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Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

Today, millions of Americans will take the day off from school or work, gather with relatives and eat a large turkey in celebration of the holiday of Thanksgiving.

For some, the celebration will also involve watching football on T.V. and/or watching or participating in parades. For my family, Thanksgiving involves gathering with relatives, sometimes (as is the case this year) with ones from out of state. Some years, we have large gatherings; in others, when various cousins spend the day with other relatives, it’s a smaller group. This year, we’ll have a mid-sized gathering, with most of the local relatives being joined by my aunt from Pittsburgh.

And those who don’t make it to a Thanksgiving gathering are there in spirit. Or more accurately, via wires or satellites, thanks to Alexander Graham Bell.

When we were children, Thanksgiving also involved going to the parade in downtown Detroit. We’d sit on a makeshift platform stretched between two ladders, sip hot chocolate, watch the floats and wait for Santa Claus to arrive.

Later, we’d either go home or to whichever relative was hosting Thanksgiving that year for dinner. Us youngsters would play together; and if it were snowing and we were at our house with the front yard on a hill, we’d go sledding.

When we had Thanksgiving (or Christmas, for that matter) at my house, my uncle would tell my cousins that we had heated streets and driveways. By the time they’d arrive in late afternoon, snowplows would have cleared the streets and people in our subdivision would have shoveled their drives.

Those cousins have since had children of their own and when those younger cousins— now in their late teens and early to mid 20s— were little, they would run giggling through whichever house we were at and/or play in the yard. Sometimes the girls would act out elaborate “plays” in the basement.

A few years ago on Thanksgiving, I asked the girls multiple choice questions about their hopes and dreams, plans and schemes. Then I used the information they gave me to write each of them a personalized short story. Which were their Christmas presents.

Another one of my aunts once said Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday, because it’s so much about family.

My own Thanksgiving tradition is to exchange letters with my closest friend. For the past several years, she and I write why we’re thankful to have each other in our lives.

But what is Thanksgiving and where did it all begin? Most people would argue that it began in 1621, with Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony, Mass., declaring a celebration of the colonists’ survival (with more than a little help from Squanto and his fellow Patuxet) during their first year in North America. But celebrations of Thanksgiving go back even further.

Robert Haven Schauffler’s 1907 book Thanksgiving: Its Origin, Celebration and Significance states that Thanksgiving can be traced back to the Canaanites. Later, the Hebrews celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles; while the Greeks held a similar harvest festival known as the Thesmophoria, which was the feast of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and harvests.

Romans celebrated the Cerelia, which honored the goddess Ceres; and in England, the autumnal festival, which could be traced back to Saxon King Egbert, was called “The Harvest Home.”

In the U.S., Thanksgiving evolved into a national holiday with gradually changing meanings. In 1789, President Washington declared Nov. 26 a national day of Thanksgiving, a time of religious reflection.

In 1863, President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, persuaded— so the story goes— by letters from Sarah J. Hale, founder and editor of The Ladies Magazine in Boston.

In 1939, President Roosevelt moved the date to the fourth Thursday in November. That day was adopted two years later by a joint resolution of Congress.

In 2009, President Obama issued a proclamation stating, among other things, that “this is a time for us to renew our bonds with one another.”

The president specifically spoke of reaching out to neighbors and fellow citizens in need of a helping hand, a laudable goal. But it can also be an opportunity to strengthen family bonds.

While the turkey dinner and/or football games are what distinguishes Thanksgiving from other holidays, those things don’t make it significant in the final analysis. What makes it significant is the act of bringing families together; and family is more important than any football team or dead bird.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating

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