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Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

The (much needed) All-American Holiday

If holidays had any control over timing, Thanksgiving’s place this year would have won a gold star. We all need a time-out to overeat, laugh, banter with relatives (even those whom we at times consider “dysfunctional”), reconnect at Turkey Day high school football matches with old friends, enjoy a collective nap in front of the television and, for a moment, take a deep breath, followed by a long exhale.

Those who are hosting the celebrations, or volunteering at local non-profits, have these moments to remind themselves of long-held family traditions and the many blessings we DO have. Thanksgiving, the least commercialized holiday we celebrate, seems to be an opportunity when we could leave stress, anger, angst, fear and hostility aside for a moment.

We all know the story of the roots of Thanksgiving. And, depending on how you view this first cooperative and collaborative effort between two diverse populations to share and celebrate surviving in a new world, it may just be true that this early collective “time-out” provided the model for the same opportunity we have this year.

I was lucky. The Turkey Days of my youth revolved around traditions that marked a day of family and harmony—well, maybe not always harmony! There were certain rituals that were repeated annually. The only acceptable way to begin Thanksgiving Day and was to gather around the television in our flannel pajamas (yes, we had to break those out by November 1—I was born and brought up on the Canadian border), to watch the Macy’s Day Parade. For well over two hours, we sat enthralled by the big balloons floating down the streets of New York City, accompanied by bands and pageantry—all as a prelude to the arrival of Santa Claus—one that I think we all secretly wanted to believe in our hearts was the REAL Santa Claus well beyond our faith in the magic of the red suit and white beard.

While for many, Thanksgiving did not exactly mirror the famous painting of Norman Rockwell—one of the Four Freedoms series featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. But the illustration, originally meant to reflect “Freedom from Want,” did much to set the bar for what most Americans thought Thanksgiving should be—an extended family gathered around grandma and grandpa as the perfectly browned turkey was presented as the centerpiece. As we became older, attempting to achieve this idyllic scene colored our expectations as we sometimes struggled to recreate the model. If only we had known that Norman Rockwell himself said about this painting, “I paint life as I would like it to be.”

Nevertheless, the memories of the Thanksgivings of my youth are ripe with nostalgia. Because of our small family, family holidays rotated among our house, my aunt’s, and Grandmother Cordwell’s. We always ate about 1:00 pm. There was a kids’ table where you sat until a space opened at the adults’ table, usually as you were approaching age 20. Grandma always roasted the turkey—and not according to currently accepted practices for avoiding semolina. She placed the bird in a brown paper bag and roasted it at low heat overnight, then transported it in her white and blue enameled roasting pan. None of us died! She also made all the pies—apple of course was the staple, always served in our house with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese (English custom). Along with traditional pumpkin, the featured treat was a mincemeat pie, made only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also an English tradition, it was originally made with mutton and assorted fruits and spices. I think I stopped eating it when I saw that Grandmother added suet to the mincemeat mix—you know, the stuff you feed to the birds in the winter!

There were four grandchildren and there was always a fight for the drumsticks. Ultimately Grandmother established a score card documenting who received the drumsticks at each holiday, and we rotated—although not without an occasional squabble. The second big discussion among the cousins was who would get the wishbone. In that case, the winner was usually the most vocal. Everyone knew that the wishbone had to dry before you could, with a partner, hold the end, and make a wish and pull. The one with the biggest piece got his or her wish—another myth I think! In all honesty, the wishbone that dried hanging over the kitchen sink for weeks, often appeared on someone’s Christmas package, sprayed gold or silver, covered with glitter. Pretty!

Now about the real centerpiece of the day–Thanksgiving football. In Rhode Island as in many states, Thanksgiving at local high schools involves the big game with traditional rivalries and all the pageantry of a homecoming. I think it’s fair to say that 75 percent of the timing of dinner was dictated by the 10:30 am start of those games. The tradition of football and Thanksgiving actually started in the late 1800s with college and high school teams playing their great rivals on that day. The thought was that the adults were not working, kids were home from school and, especially in the South, and the weather was perfect for play. Although professionals played on Thanksgiving as early as the 1920s, the rivalry that put pro football on the Thanksgiving Day map was the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. In 1934 that game was broadcast on 94 radio stations across the country and the tradition was set in stone.

The first full color television broadcast of a professional Thanksgiving Day game came in 1965 when CBS broadcast the game between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. By 2012, all three broadcast stations with NFL affiliation carried games. There are some cynics that have commented that Thanksgiving football is a great way to escape all that wonderful family time required around the table. There’s probably more truth in that observation then we’d all care to admit.

If today we told the whole truth about Thanksgiving, we’d probably admit it is easier (and less stressful) to make reservations which, based on my roots, is almost sacrilegious. However, where ever we share a meal this year, especially in our current world climate, perhaps we can make an extra effort to show random acts of kindness in celebration of the freedoms and blessings we do enjoy.

Author’s Note: Until I started gathering information for this reflection, I had no idea what a somewhat checkered history Thanksgiving had. We all know the story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indian tribe and its chief Massasoit celebrating a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621 (very close to RI). According to history, a national day of thanksgiving was not designated until 1789, and even then it was sporadically celebrated. It was not until Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 establishing the last Thursday in November a day of “thanksgiving and praise” that Turkey day became an annual holiday tied to a specific date. But, that was not the end of the Thanksgiving discussion on a national level. Pressured by merchants in 1939 because Thanksgiving was scheduled to fall on November 30, leaving very little time between Thanksgiving and Christmas for shopping, FDR changed the date to November 23—or the second-to-last Thursday of November—causing great confusion for school vacations and activities—and, oh yes, the football schedule. The picture included in this story is of Luke, our beloved Golden Retriever, whom we lost to kidney failure last May. Luke was a true neighborhood pet who would make his daily rounds for treats. Since he was so patient, I dressed him for each holiday, made and distributed cards to all the neighbors on Luke’s behalf, thanking them for keeping a jar of dog biscuits on their counters. Here he waits patiently for the arrival of the turkey!