By Melissa Minners
Thanksgiving Day means many different things to many different people. As we grow older, we learn that the tale of the very first Thanksgiving Day we were told as children was a fabrication of sorts. Pilgrims that arrived in Massachusetts did have a harvest festival with a Wampanoag tribe, but it wasn’t a thanksgiving ceremony to the Pilgrims, who believed in solemnity and fasting for true thanksgiving. This was more of a party, but it wasn’t something that Americans celebrated annually until President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving Day a national annual event in 1863.
All those tales of turkey served at the first Thanksgiving Day feast were also hogwash. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoags more likely ate fish, eggs, corn, vegetables, and fruit. In fact, turkey didn’t become a Thanksgiving mainstay until the 1860s. Tom Turkey was safe all those years! Who knew?!
Are we jaded because historians have begun to shed some light on the holiday? Hell, no! Thanksgiving Day still remains one of my favorite holidays of the year!
As a child in school, Thanksgiving Day meant that it was time to break out the crayons, pencils, markers, and paint brushes and make outlines of our hands that we would cleverly turn in to turkeys by adding legs and faces. Who doesn’t remember one of these “hand-made” turkey drawings hanging on their mother’s refrigerators? It also meant a lightening of the school work load in favor of Thanksgiving Day enactments – usually in the form of a play. I got to be a Pilgrim one year. As I remember it, I had only one line and was in charge of making the popcorn. Boy, was I ever proud! It also meant reading tons of books like Squanto, Pocahontas, The Thanksgiving Treasure, tales of the Pilgrims and their journey to the Americas, and more. But most importantly, it meant time off from school!
Having off from school for Thanksgiving Day was a veritable treat for any kid. Some kids just slept late, ran out and played, and basically did whatever they wanted. But the Minners household was steeped in tradition. On the night before Thanksgiving Day, we usually got to stay up late to help make the various desserts for the holiday. Mom would break out the Pillsbury Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and we would carefully space out the little dollops that would become the most scrumptious cookies I’ve ever eaten. We would make brownies, too! And pumpkin pie! Back then, we didn’t buy a ready made pie – we baked them from scratch…with a little help from Libby’s that is.
Thanksgiving Day morning would begin with my mom and dad preparing the stuffing while the kids sat around the television set watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Soon, our parents would call us into the kitchen so we could perform the insane ritual of yelling “Hello down there!” down Tom Turkey’s butt prior to stuffing it. It was now time to sew up that bad boy. My father, always one to get into his roles, would approach the bird with hands held upright like that of a sterilized surgeon preparing to operate. The sutures complete, we would plop ourselves back in front of the television, munching on celery or cheese as we watched the end of the parade, waiting in anticipation for Santa Claus.
The turkey always took forever to cook and so we would end up in front of the television for hours watching movies like King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Godzilla, and March of the Wooden Soldiers. The weeks prior to the holiday were rife with holiday specials like A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, The Thanksgiving Treasure (an adaptation of the book), and more, but for some strange reason, we looked forward to the movies we watched while Tom was in the oven. I remember the profound disappointment we felt when the networks stopped airing these movies on Thanksgiving Day. It was like losing an old friend. Sure, we could rent them from the local video store and watch them on Thanksgiving Day, but it just wasn’t the same.
Once the turkey and fixings were done, it was time to stuff ourselves silly with bird, stuffing, potatoes, candied yams, and more. All around the table was silence except for the sounds of forks and knives clinking against plates. It seemed we couldn’t get enough and kept going back for more! Then, someone would remember dessert and we would all quickly clear the table, swearing we’d have enough room to eat more than just a slice of pumpkin pie. Finding that our eyes were in fact bigger than our stomachs, we’d settle for that single slice, vowing to return for more later. Invariably we would, crafting sandwiches from the leftover turkey and scrounging whatever other leftovers were around.
In later years, independence from the family meant independence from tradition. Thanksgiving Day was spent haphazardly, never knowing exactly what would happen or where we’d be eating. One year, I ventured into Manhattan with some friends to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in person. Things were tight – and I do mean tight! People jostling each other around for a good view of what was coming up the street. We were at the beginning of the parade, as I remember. I had always thought that the performers on the floats were lip-syncing when I was a kid watching the parade on television. Here was my proof! Each passing float proved it! Performers were talking to each other instead of singing! AHH!! The balloons were cool, but they weren’t the same as the balloons of my youth, and so I was disappointed. And all those people! From that day on, I watched the parade on television, realizing that it was a much more enjoyable experience that way.
Back then, there were Thanksgiving Days that I ate at three different tables, each friend inviting me to another dinner. There were some that I spent at work, eating whatever meal we could scrounge…hopefully something containing turkey. I remember one year when having Thanksgiving Day off came as a surprise – I only found out the day before. Shopping at the grocery store was extremely intolerable…but somehow I made it through. Of course, there were no hopes of buying a turkey on that day. I got hold of whatever I could – yams, cranberry sauce, creamed corn and a frozen turkey dinner from Boston Market – and made due. By then, I had children – the furry kind. Each pet received something of a turkey dinner. Even in years that the turkey came in cans, they were always grateful.
Now, I feel a resurgence for the traditions of yore. Things are a tad different – we celebrate Thanksgiving Day either the weekend before or after as my job necessitates that I work on the actual date. Old traditions arise anew as the baking of treats begins the night before the big feast. The next day brings the promise of a veritable feast, filled with many of the foods that were heaped upon the tables of my youth, and some new additions that we all agree make the meal complete. And, of course, my children – still the furry kind – get to sample some of the eats gratefully. In fact, my oldest was waiting at the stove last year, staring at the slowly cooking turkey with anticipation…not to mention some drool!
Just as in years past, dinner is followed by the rest period – a time where everyone finds themselves seated around the television staring in a turkey-induced daze at whatever happens to be on in hopes that we will soon find enough room in our stomachs for dessert. When we all can bare to move around, the coffee is made and the desserts are heaped upon the table. When the gorge-fest is complete, we flop down in various positions swearing that we will never eat like that again…that is, until the very next Thanksgiving Day. We relish each other’s company until its time for some of us to go home…usually fairly late as no one can bare to move after stuffing themselves with more than you could ever imagine stuffing inside a turkey.
Hugs, kisses, and thank yous abound as the loved ones leave and we realize just what it is we are thankful for. It’s not the tales about Thanksgiving we were told as youths. It’s not the holiday specials or the days off from work or school. It’s being with the people you care most about – sharing time and presence – that is the true meaning behind Thanksgiving Day.
A very special thanks to http://www.hellasmultimedia.com/webimages/ for all of the terrific graphic art images used in this story.