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Life as Performance Art

    Thanksgiving Day is this Thursday, the 24th, and it is a uniquely original American holiday.  The first one was held in 1619 when the Anglicans landed in Virginia.  According to their charter from the London Company, they were to have an annual day of thanksgiving for their safe arrival.  They did that for a few years, and then it fizzled out.
    The more familiar story, the one we all know, focuses on the Pilgrims who crossed over on the Mayflower in 1620.  Half of the settlers died the first winter; all of the survivors were starving, but thanks to the help from some of the native tribes, they managed to make it.  The following year a Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed in Plymouth Colony. We have heard the tales, perhaps re-enacted them in elementary school, and seen the heroic pictures of everyone sitting down to the big feast.  What they don’t often tell is that the meal came after the traditional morning worship service – a one-hour long prayer, a two hour sermon, and another long prayer. Only then did they ring the dinner bell.
   There is perhaps more myth and legend than truth and reality to some of the smaller details. I don’t think that isn’t important.  What is important was the establishment of this tradition.  Gradually, over the next eighty-some years once the New England Theocracy had collapsed, Thanksgiving Day was not as scrupulously observed as it had in the past.
    It wasn’t until General Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving after putting the run on the Redcoats in several battles.  Then, he did it again once he became our first President.  He signed the documents to make November 26, 1789, a national day of prayer and gratitude for all of the material blessings from God.  However, after he retired to Mount Vernon, the tradition went into a steep decline for many years.  Rather than a national day, each state chose to sit their own date. That is, if they chose to observe it at all.
    For the most part, the United States and its territories were primarily agricultural, rather than industrial. It followed that a thanksgiving celebration would come at the end of the harvest season when farm families would join together express their appreciation for an abundant crop.  It is still that way in many rural parts of the country.
    The day changed again,  from being a local observance to a national holiday when, in 1863,  in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln set the date for a nationwide Thanksgiving Day on the first Thursday of November.  It was not universally well received – the country was divided by the Civil War,  hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were dead or wounded and there was no end in sight to the slaughter.  Hundreds of thousands of civilians were grieving the loss of loved ones.  How could we have much for which to be thankful?  The day was observed, but then not again until the 1870s.  Soon after, the holiday once again drifted closer to obscurity,  although many communities and states continued to observe Thanksgiving on the first Thursday of November. Gradually, it was pushed back to the last Thursday.
    Then, in 1939, just as America was pulling out of the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt was thinking about running for a third time, a group of retail merchants visited him at the Oval Office.  They asked if the holiday could be permanently set on the fourth Thursday of the month.  Their reasons were purely mercenary and practical:  that year the date would give seven more shopping days before Christmas. That was good for the merchants. An improving economy would be good for President Roosevelt.  Little wonder that some columnists, church leaders, and Republican politicians nicknamed it “Franklinsgiving Day.”
    Surprisingly, we had one last chance to tinker with the date for Thanksgiving prior to 1971.  For a time, there was thought given to making Columbus Day our new Thanksgiving Day.  We would then be jointly celebrating it with our friends in Canada, and the weather would be better in the upper tier of States. That did not happen because a very vocal Italian caucus opposed it.
      This long and sometimes convoluted way in which Thanksgiving Day has been observed, celebrated, or almost forgotten seems to indicate that even though it is important to many of us as individuals,  there is no specific “right” way or time to celebrate.  The menu is not the important part, as we all have our favorite foods, or foods that are part of our community or family tradition.  It is a matter of personal preference or dietary requirements.
      Some of us will go to church on Thanksgiving morning, while others will camp out in front of the television set to watch the big parades from New York City or Chicago. Still others, if the weather cooperates, will decide it is a good day to put up the outdoor lights for Christmas.   Unlike the bleak conformity of the Puritans, you and I have the opportunity to spend the day in a way we feel is meaningful to us.
    That alone, I believe, is what makes Thanksgiving Day so very special.  You decide what you want to say ‘thank you’ and I will do likewise.  Your problems and triumphs are not mine, nor mine yours.  We do not have to be in lock-step conformity.  At the same time, we can share our lists with each other, because often that is how we inspire and raise each other up.  It makes us a better person.
    I am convinced it is good for the country.  Any idiot can come up with a long list of what they don’t like about the United States, its government, or anything else.  That sort of negativity has been swirling around like bilge water, and it is just plain toxic.  Some of the negative types truly hate this country, and others know that if they can fuss and complain there will always be an audience.
     My great grandfather and his brother moved to this country in the 1840s.  They took the risks and undertook the hard work of settling on the prairie of the Minnesota Territory.  The hours were long, the future never promised. They did it because it was better here. They didn’t have the king of Wurttemberg and his magistrates, nor the Catholic Church running their lives. They had the freedom to choose.  There are two men and their families who had much for which they were thankful.
    If we would spent as much time, even half as much time, talking about what we like about this country and we are grateful we get to live here, it would be an even better place.  That’s why I like Grandfather Sycamore in the film You Can’t Take It With You.  Every evening the family would sit down for their evening meal, and he would ask for them to be quiet. Grandfather would look up toward the ceiling and say, “Well, Lord, here we are again. We have our health and we have each other, and that’s all good. The rest of it we leave up to you.”
     I like that idea.
   May you have a truly joyous Thanksgiving Day.

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