The act of thanksgiving must be as old as human activity. Neanderthals in their day must have felt thankful for successful hunts or for escaping maiming by wounded mastodons. We Americans often think of it as an event started in 1621 by the surviving Plimoth Colony Puritans – half had died in the past year – in celebration of a successful Indian corn harvest. The native Wampanoags had generously showed these surprising arrivals how to survive in the woods of the New World. The pilgrims’ celebration was reenacted for almost 250 years afterward and on different dates in various parts of North America.
Thanksgiving’s recent history has become more political and commercial than prayerful. The editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for 36 years to make it a national holiday. Finally, in 1863, President Lincoln decreed it to be the last Thursday of November. It was celebrated on that day until 1939, when President Roosevelt moved it up a week to spur retail sales during the Depression. His decree evoked fervent opposition. So in 1941 he grudgingly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. Currently, many national chain stores have taken over that holiday with so-called “doorbuster sales.” They require enhanced security to prevent the trampling of older, weaker shoppers. Being elderly, I favor the old-fashioned Thanksgivings of my boyhood. Storm clouds had gathered over Europe, and our country was mobilizing for the war that was soon to break upon us; but that Thursday was a holiday as sacred as Christmas. Grampa Lange picked us up in his old Dodge and ferried us to his house across town. Grandma Lange was a magnificent cook with linens and silverware to match. There were great-grandparents and great-aunts. Grampa gave a long, long prayer of thanksgiving, while vapors rose from steaming bowls of mashed potatoes, squash, peas, and gravy. Grampa had been frustrated as a young man because he couldn’t afford medical school, and had become a pharmacist instead. He honed his carving knife on his sharpening steel as if he were about to remove an appendix, pushed his spectacles up onto his forehead, and cut slices so thin you could have read a newspaper right through them. Afterward he whipped the cream, and I got to lick the whisks. I liked that beater so much, they willed it to me; I still have it. But more precious, I have the memory of a family still unseparated by war and change, giving thanks for everyone who’d gone before to make such incredible plenty possible.
This is Willem Lange, wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving.