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Holiday history: Thanksgiving past to present

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Thanksgiving seems to have arrived quickly this year, despite little evidence the world has much to be thankful about. Still, the hams and turkeys will be on countless tables this Thursday, which itself is something for which to give thanks. Sports are a bonus.

Thanksgiving — a day set aside to thank God for our many blessings — has a long heritage in this country, although over time its origins and practices have became mythic rather than factual. Stories about early Thanksgivings often depend upon who is doing the telling.

For instance, the first Thanksgiving was not celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, though millions of American schoolchildren over the centuries have made their share of funny buckle hats, shoe buckles and Indian tomahawks to honor the feast supposedly shared by the first colonists and their Indian benefactors. The Pilgrims did have a four-day harvest celebration of feasting and games, even joined by the Indians, but their celebration was not the first.

Credit for the first English thanksgiving, also related to the harvest, actually goes to the settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, who had documented celebrations in 1610 and again in 1619 at Berkley Plantation. The New England Thanksgiving, though later, enjoyed better public relations support than the Virginians, so Americans still give the Pilgrims more credit than they deserve.

Feasting, not religion, reigned at most of the early harvest festivals, a tendency not unlike today’s focus on Thanksgiving dinner as the celebration’s highlight. Many communities, including Spring Hope, hold church services for Thanksgiving on another day (this year the local Thanksgiving service was held Sunday). On Thanksgiving Day itself, God is fortunate to hear a longer than usual grace before people chow down.

President George Washington proclaimed the nation’s first official Thanksgiving in 1789, but the day was not consistently celebrated over the years until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official federal holiday on the last Thursday in November even as the Civil War was raging. Thanksgiving has been celebrated every year since, although Congress changed its date to the fourth Thursday of November in 1941 to extend the Christmas shopping season an additional week.

That touching tribute to consumerism has since expanded to an explosion of shopping, online and in person. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has long been considered the official start of the Christmas shopping season and one of the two biggest shopping days of the year (the other being the day after Christmas, hence “many happy returns of the season.”) But somehow Black Friday is now being celebrated a week or more before the day itself, and Christmas-related merchandise and decorations are appearing as early as Halloween.

Next thing you know Santa Claus will be holding a jack-o-lantern and going, “Ho ho ho, boo.”

I didn’t realize that pro football has been a part of Thanksgiving Day since the late 1890s, gradually including college football, and more recently college basketball has found its own holiday niche. It’s hard to keep track of when all the games are, but the Thanksgiving Day games were always a highlight at my house, sometimes at the expense of the family’s sit-down dinner.

My mother was furious at me one year when I wrote in the college newspaper about enjoying Thanksgiving dinner on television trays in front of the football game. She did not object to our watching the game; she was embarrassed by my revelation that we did not sit down at the table together. Norman Rockwell, she was sure, would be shocked.

Thanksgiving parades are another tradition. The oldest parade is Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, begun in 1920 and originally associated with the former Gimbels Department Store. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York began in 1924. Both parades are televised every Thanksgiving morning, which make them very useful babysitters for children while harried parents finish preparations for the big dinner.

The giant balloons for the Macy’s parades are particularly eye-catching, though I always thought there was more hot air, or gas, in Washington.

Two things I like best about Thanksgivings is, one, that the holiday reminds us to be thankful to God at all times, even when times are tough; and, second, that Thanksgiving is a holiday for family, even if that family consists of friends and neighbors who come together when family members are far away. Thanksgiving is about God and community, two central pillars of life that cannot be diminished by games, parades or shopping.

And for that, despite all else, I am truly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!

Ken Ripley, a resident of Spring Hope, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.

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