Pass the tradition

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 24, 2005

For the majority of blue-collar Americans, Thanksgiving Day is a late-week break from the daily grind of work.

Many will use the day to catch-up on a long list of household chores – for men that means raking leaves and tidying up the yard just in time to decorate it for the Christmas season.

For others (like me, I have no leaves to rake because I have no trees in my yard), it’s a lazy day – one where it’s okay to sleep in late and rise to a day of holiday parades and the traditional afternoon of NFL football games.

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In keeping with the tradition of this holiday, chowing down on a large meal is a must. This year, I’ll make my way over to my sister’s house in Northampton County where I’m sure all the Thanksgiving food staples – turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed ‘taters, yams, squash and cranberry sauce – will await my palate.

Celebrating this holiday with family and friends by sitting down for a feast fit for a King is the way most Americans enjoy this day off from work. We can thank our Pilgrim forefathers for this chance to stuff our bellies with the bountiful, not to mention tasty, morsels of Earth. It was the Pilgrims, settling into the New England area in the early 17th century, who shared a meal with the Native Americans in celebration of a good harvest, thusly establishing America’s version of Thanksgiving Day.

Over the centuries that followed, we still pay honor to our forefathers by dressing-up as Pilgrims for Thanksgiving Day parades. Yards are decorated with hay bales and corn stalks while porches are used to display cornucopias – horn-shaped baskets overflowing with fruits and vegetables in honor of an abundant harvest.

But what is now an American celebration held the fourth Thursday of November traces its roots much further than the Pilgrims breaking bread with Native Americans.

Prior to Europeans braving the seas to settle in North America, western Europeans observed harvest festivals in order to celebrate the successful completion of gathering the crops. In the British Isles, Loaf Mass Day was observed on Aug. 1 to celebrate a good wheat harvest.

Another Thanksgiving Day predecessor was a custom practiced by English Puritans. They would designate certain days (in no regular fashion) to express gratitude for God’s many blessings. Normally, those days were scheduled in times of crisis or immediately after a period of misfortune had passed. Thusly, these Puritan ceremonies were more of a religious occasion rather than one that celebrated an abundant harvest.

However, a bit of religion was noted in one of the earlier Thanksgiving celebrations between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. In 1623, two years after the English colonists who settled what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, a serous drought turned the annual harvest celebration (one first observed in 1621) into a day of fasting and prayer. Amazingly, while the Pilgrims prayed, rains fell from the heavens – thusly turning the day into one of giving thanks to God and his blessings.

Following the theme of giving thanks, the Continental Congress proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving following an American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 during the Revolutionary War. Twelve years later (1789), President George Washington proclaimed another day of thanksgiving in honor of the ratification of the Constitution.

The state of New York became the first American colony to adopt Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. Other states soon followed, but their celebrations came on different days in November.

By presidential order in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving in order to boost the morale of the Union troops. Following the Civil War, Congress enacted Lincoln’s idea into a national holiday, but widespread acceptance from Americans was slow to catch on, especially in the Southern states.

The idea of the official Christmas shopping season beginning on the day after Thanksgiving entered the American mindset in the 1930’s. Large retail outlets such as Macy’s in New York City and Gimbel’s in Philadelphia jumpstarted the shopping frenzy by sponsoring lavish Thanksgiving Day parades.

Ironically, it was retail merchants who came-up with the idea of moving Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday of November in order to allow for an extra week of Christmas shopping. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt obliged those merchants by moving Thanksgiving one week earlier, but the majority of Americans objected to the change in tradition. Roosevelt’s political opponents in Congress dubbed the day &uot;Franksgiving.&uot;

Two years later (1941), President Roosevelt admitted he made a mistake and shifted Thanksgiving Day back to its traditional spot – the fourth Thursday in November from where it remains.

When you sit down for that Thanksgiving meal, remember of how the holiday came to pass and please thank God for allowing you to live in the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.

Happy Thanksgiving!