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Blogs by Robert A. Mills

PLYMOUTH ROCKS
11/20/2010 6:57:31 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

The fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Day, is, hands down, my favorite holiday of all time.

Even though begun by English colonists and non-hostile Wampanog Indians back in 1621, it is strictly an American invention designated by George Washington and the Founding Fathers to commemorate our tidings of great joy for having survived yet another year of not-so-devastating-after-all good (or bad) fortune (the Revolutionary War was not exactly a night at the opera.)

There are some among us who deliriously opt for Christmas and/or the 4th of July as exemplary holidays, but sadly, these people are victims of a popular pressure brought on by commercial, patriotic and quasi-religious ideas perpetrated to preserve the status quo (according to Glenn Beck and other great thinkers.)

Take December’s Christmas extravaganza, as a for instance. Supposedly to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christianity’s own infallible diary tells us the Nativity occurred in springtime, not the dead of winter. What well-intentioned merchant figured out year-end sales might rescue a perpetually sinking economy? (You know who as well as I.)

Easter Sunday, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King, 4th of July, Halloween, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Columbus Day, Presidents Day — come on; you can’t seriously consider any of these as more than an excuse to take time off from work and feed the bulging coffers of Hallmark Greeting Cards! Well, Easter Sunday may be a stretch, but let’s face it: do we really need a holiday to dress up and go to church to celebrate an execution? Okay, that might be a tasteless remark, but admit it, Mr. and Mrs. Goody Two-Shoes: you begrudgingly agree, even if you say you don’t.

I would rather designate Thanksgiving as our One and Only National Holiday. Just think: a full week off to contemplate your blessings — to stuff yourselves into semi-oblivion with all the culinary delights available, culminating on Thursday, the Big Day, with a gigantic turkey dinner and all the trimmings. And to boot, a full complement of NFL and SEC games on TV — for seven straight days and nights! Yea! Whoopee! Bring it on!

Ol’ Ben Franklin in his dotage wanted the turkey declared our National Bird, the centerpiece of emblematic significance. Not a bad idea, actually, until you contemplate chewing and swallowing roast bald eagle for Thanksgiving dinner. It would have never worked; at last count we have 741,822,483,951,583.7 turkeys roaming from sea to shining sea, and only 281 eagles — hardly enough to go around, even at 69¢ a pound.

At the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln — our second, third or fourth greatest president, depending how hooked you are on Ronald Reagan — was influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale, the “editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a tome probably on Mary Todd Lincoln’s nightstand. Honest Abe set aside the Emancipation Proclamation long enough to enthusiastically proclaim Thanksgiving Day as the final Thursday in November, 1863.

(Incidentally, Mrs. Hale also wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and she lived a full year after Tom Edison, in 1877, had recited it into his phonograph. Hmmm. His fleece, by then, was probably as white as snow.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, unquestionably our greatest president notwithstanding your affection for Ronald Reagan, virtually agreed with Lincoln and his successors and declared the final Thursday in November to forever be Thanksgiving. In 1939, however, FDR totally broke with tradition because November had five Thursdays that year instead of the usual four — so he said the fourth Thursday would be Thanksgiving rather than the fifth one. Okay by me.

1940 and 1941, as Fate would have it, were years in which November had four Thursdays, so the chief executive declared the third one as Thanksgiving. You may run across self-proclaimed historians who say otherwise, but FDR made it clear Thanksgiving Day would fall on the next-to-last Thursday in the month instead of the last one. What a guy. Still okay by me.

Remember, the country was continuing the hangover of the Great Depression, and the “Boss” felt an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants a longer period to sell goods before the madness of Christmas. FDR rightfully expected increased spending would help lift the nation out of the Depression mode (sound familiar?)

In fact, Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving was considered by many to be “crassly gross” and Fred Lazarus, eventual head of Macy’s, strongly lobbied Roosevelt to push Thanksgiving back a week and make the season that much longer. Talk about entreprenurial foresight!

Of course, as one might expect, Republicans screamed “no fair, youse guys!” and said it was damaging to Lincoln’s legacy. The mean-spirited main stream media labeled Nov. 30 as the "GOP Thanksgiving" and Nov. 23 the "Democratic Franksgiving." They noted that many regions already celebrated the last Thursday, not to mention many football teams had already scheduled and sold tickets to their final games on Thanksgiving Day.

The anti-Democrat press smugly pointed out that a “presidential declaration of Thanksgiving” did not have any legal status, anyway, so FDR’s radical behavior was widely discredited. No less than twenty-three states went along with Roosevelt's recommendation, while twenty-two did not — and some, like Texas, could not make up their minds, so they said “what the hey!” — and took both days off as bona fide, government holidays! Only in America!

Getting hungry? Well, the story isn’t over yet, so keep your napkin tucked under your chin. In early October 1941 Congress passed a joint resolution making the “last Thursday in November” Thanksgiving Day, beginning in 1942.

But the Senate, still not happy and unwilling to give an inch, passed an amendment that split the difference by saying the day be observed on the fourth November Thursday, which was sometimes the final Thursday and once in a while the next to last one. FDR, wondering why he’d brought it up in the first place and possibly having more urgent matters on his plate, threw up his hands in despair and the day after Christmas in 1941 signed the bill into federal law (I think we were now at war, but who was paying attention?)

About 1947 (maybe it was earlier, I don’t know or care) the National Turkey Federation began giving the sitting president the bird, so to speak: a live bird plus a couple “dressed” turkeys in a White House ceremony called the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. The live bird is “pardoned” by the president and sent to enjoy his remaining days gobbling around on a nearby farm.

They say this all began with Harry Truman, but I can’t find any solid evidence — the earliest record is 1989 when Bush Peré was president (there are a couple stories around that the tradition goes back as far as Lincoln when he often “pardoned” son Tad’s pet turkeys — back in those days, however, the Executive Mansion’s landscape was often mistaken for the County Fairgrounds.)

Currently, two turkeys are pardoned annually, just in case the original one is unavailable (perhaps due to an over-zealous White House chef.)

Speaking of the White House, I am especially fond of the story about Grace Coolidge’s Thanksgiving family/staff dinner in 1927 when the butler brought in a magificent thirty-five pound roasted turkey, and while displaying it with a flourish around the table, let it slide off the silver platter — kerplop onto the floor! Undaunted and without missing a beat, the First Lady said, “Not to worry, Winthrop. Just scoop it up and return it to the kitchen. Then bring out the other one.”

But all was still not mincemeat pie and dainty nut cups around the groaning board. In 1970 a rabble-rouser named Frank “Wamsutta” James of New England’s United American Indians claimed the U.S. and European settlers concocted the whole Thanksgiving story as a whitewash of the injustices against native Americans.

Consequently, in the name of social reprimand, he holds a National Day of Mouning each year at Plymouth Rock. Not to be outdone, San Fransicoans hold an “Unthanksgiving Day” in California to protest the Occupation of Alcatraz. Go figure.

Currently, President Obama has a children’s book — OF THEE I SING! — in the bookstores, in which he includes Chief Sitting Bull as an iconic role model. America’s straw dog, Fox News, grasping as always at straws, immediately got its knickers in a knot because the great Indian chief masterminded the ignominious defeat of Lt. Col. George Custer, a rather ignominious West Point grad, at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and they claim Sitting Bull should not be glorified as an American hero.

Truth of the matter, Mr. Bull was a decepit 45 (lifespan in the 19th century was about 40) and too old to have been much use at Little Big Horn, so he left that conflict mainly to his buddy Crazy Horse. The ancient chief was home in his teepee, sitting cross-legged despite his lumbego, enjoying turkey giblets and pumpkin pie with his squaws, while the battle raged that summer of 1876. (True, Thanksgiving was six months off, but wild turkeys, like buffalo, were abundant in Montana and South Dakota that year, and even Indians have to eat.)

Maybe Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday after all. I still prefer it over Christmas and Halloween, but of late I lean more and more towards Labor Day. No wild-eyed kids who abandon truckloads of toys after three minutes of unwrapping and complaining, no syrupy relatives examining boxes for pricetags, no pastors, visitors and hypocrits leading unending prayers of abject supplication, no competitions for brilliant decorations, no crowded malls and surly waiters, no must-see movies about fat, bearded old men and their reindeer, and no nauseous TV events about bells that tinkle when angels get their wings.

Makes “Kill Bill” look appetizing.

I do, however, miss reading to my kids Clement Moore’s nonsense poem about a belly that jiggles like a bowlful of jelly, and maybe — just maybe — Charles Dickens and ol’ Ebenezer were on to something as well. Maybe . . . but I doubt it.

Hav-a-Happy Thanksgiving!

Copyright© by Robert A. Mills


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