A version of this ran in the Chicago Tribune as a guest commentary on 11/27/2013, the day before Thanksgiving. Since it was written many stores, notably Target, have decided to remain closed on Thanksgiving.
Why are we whining about a “War on Christmas” when it is really Thanksgiving that is under fire?
This year many stores will be open Thanksgiving Day. It was bad enough that scores of stores opened at midnight, Thursday leaving little time for sleep, but now employers are forcing their “valued” employees to leave their food, family, and fellowship, and work through the meal and through the night, not to mention that they are enticing shoppers to leave the dirty dishes in search of bargains.
This is all the more outrageous because Thanksgiving is the quintessential All-American holiday, more important and meaningful than any other American holiday, including Independence Day.
Think about this: We are a nation of immigrants. We are all descendants of immigrants, even native Americans. Everybody here from someplace else. Every nationality on earth, every culture, every language. As we have just seen, politics and religion divide us deeply and profoundly. But once a year we get together with our friends and families, fractious though they may be, give thanks to our various gods, to our hosts, to each other, and share a feast.
Americans share this event not only nationwide, but overseas, in war zones, with expats on the job in Johannesburg or Johannisberg. And we share it over time, with our ancestors back to 1621, less than a year after the Mayflower dropped British colonists in Plymouth, MA. They left England to seek religious freedom, and they gave thanks for their first harvest by sharing a feast with the Wampanoag tribe. The celebration continued informally until 1863 when President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November to honor the “blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”
That means the feast we are serving has been shared like this for almost 400 years, more than 100 years longer than Independence Day. July 4 may be about independence, but William Jennings Bryan once wrote “On Thanksgiving Day, we acknowledge our dependence.” The Thanksgiving ceremonial repast connects us all as part of an unparalleled time-space continuum. This makes it truly the most important American holiday.
A few of us may have lasagna or prime rib, but most of us, across the vastness of the globe, across all age groups, across politics and religion, share pretty much the same menu of turkey, the bird Ben Franklin, the coolest founder, wanted to be our national bird; dressing made from bread, the humblest and noblest of foods; potatoes, the most earthy peasant food that sustained our ancestors in hardship; gravy to ladle over the potatoes and meat to moisten and enrich them; cranberries, a bauble sweet and sour, just like life itself; something green, like green beans or a salad to make Mom happy; plenty of wine, the beverage of conviviality and conversation; and All-American apple pie. If this is not your menu, it should be.
OK, at your house you might skip the cranberries or prefer pumpkin pie, but the thought that so many of us are sharing this classic menu, this celebration, this unique national cultural touchstone, is enough to make me weep, all the more because food, my great love and livelihood, is at the center of the action.
The encroachment of Black Friday into Thursday also makes me weep. Why are we letting greedy merchants steal this signal patriotic event from their clerks, stockboys, cashiers, and managers? Where is the outcry from the family values crowd? Where are the flag draped patriots?
Let me make it clear, I have nothing against capitalism and profit. I am a serial entrepreneur myself. But I do have something against greed. And I do respect family values.
Yes, I know thousands line up for the bargains when the stores open up on Thursday, and that is their decision. But the people who have to stock the shelves, man the cash registers, sweep the floors, and break up the fights in the aisles have no choice. They either abandon their families on this family day, or risk their jobs.
When I sit down for dinner on the fourth Thursday in November and reflect on the fact that I am part of a ritual feast shared by so many for so long, I am deeply and truly awed. More so when I realize that thousands are eating my recipes.
And then, as I chew, I wonder, why don’t I cook turkey, dressing, and cranberries more often? And the answer is clear. Because Thanksgiving and all the fixins are sacred. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s not go shopping until Friday morning and let’s tell the shopkeepers to let their employees and customers spend this most special American day with their families and friends.
Don’t forget the dishrack
The sweet young thing was preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner. As she got everything ready she sternly reminded herself to let the turkey finish thawing in the sink overnight. She put it in and placed a dishrack over the top of the bird.
Her new husband walked into the kitchen and asks “Why the dishrack?”
“Mom always did that to help the turkey thaw” she said.
The next day Mom called to see how everything was going.
“Fine, Mom. I have everything ready to go in the oven. I even remembered to put the dishrack over the turkey last night.”
A moment of silence, then, “What are you talking about?” Mom asked.
“Oh, I remembered how you always put the dish rack over the turkey when it was thawing in the sink,” she said.
There was a pause on the end of the line. “Yes, I did. But honey, you don’t have cats!”
A Thanksgiving divorce
A man in Phoenix calls his son in New York two days before Thanksgiving and says “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing. Forty-five years of misery is enough.”
“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son demands.
“We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer. We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. “Like heck they’re getting divorced,” she shouts, “I’ll take care of this.”
She calls Phoenix immediately, and screams at her father, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hangs up.
The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. “Okay,” he says, “they’re coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own way.”