Thanksgiving was funnest of holidays. Christmas was frenziest, a riot of garish consumption. Easter was pleasantest, chocolate bunny ears gnawed first. July 4th was adventurest, given dueling Roman Candles and firecrackers tossed at brothers. Halloween was freest, gathering loot late into night (although Mischief Night dwarfed Halloween). Birthdays were boringest, for aside from getting your favorite meal, we ignored birthdays. But the commerce-free Thanksgivings of my memory were funnest of all holidays, grand traditions observed.
Thanksgiving started with the town gathering on our church steps for the annual bell-ringing observance. Then it was off to the football game against our arch-rivals from Clark, New Jersey. At halftime, school band played the theme song from "Exodus" during which all football, marching band and cheerleading seniors gave way to the juniors.
Mom found it blissfully convenient to have all kids scooted outside while she prepared turkeys (yes, plural), filling, mashed potatoes, green bean salad, creamed white onions, burnt rolls (obligatory), as well as Granny’s fudge balls rolled in chocolate sprinkles. Mom dealt in volume, for in those days places were laid for a minimum of 24. A gathered clan. Tables laden with silver goblets, good china, real silverware, flickering candles, all spread out on linen tablecloths – even at the kids’ tables.
We’d exit the house with its ordinary house smells, our nostrils quickly flared by the November chill and football cheers, only to return to a home redolent with the aroma of roasted turkey. We’d barge through the door and this house of culinary machinery would explode into a home chaotic with chatter, giggles, song, stories, bullah-bullahs, cocktails and pranks between cousins. Instant warmth. And it was good.
Thanksgiving was good because it reminded us of what is good. We never took turns around the table to mention something for which we were thankful, partly because with our numerous and opinionated family it would have taken forever and Laurel and Hardy’s ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’ would be on TV later, but mostly because it wasn’t needed to be said. We just knew it. We were grateful. We felt humbled. For family. For home. For church. For schools. For country. For a republic that has a way of finding its way, if we deserve it. Do we today? We’re being tested.
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. A cynical bore once tried to editorialize that Lincoln invented the Thanksgiving holiday to boost flagging Union commitment and military morale at a bad time during the Civil War. Give me a break. To this person I say: “The louder the noise, the smaller the bird.” Or as James Thurber joked: “Don’t let the chip on your shoulder be your only reason for walking erect.” Cynics, hush!
It was hardly a political ploy. Thanksgiving was a call to conscience and repentance. Lincoln preached to us: "We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us."
The number of places at a table may change. Musical chairs, from year to year. Exits and entrances. Is a kids’ table still needed? Instead of sitting on bleachers you might stay indoors and watch the parade. You might even eat your Thanksgiving meal with plastic rather than silver. No matter. I still hear the bells tolled on church steps. Little did I realize how those bells would echo across these decades. Thanksgiving remains a day of humility. As it’s a day of humility, it’s a day of promise.
From "Living Prayer" by Anthony Bloom: “Basically, humility is the attitude of one who stands constantly under the judgment of God. It is the attitude of one who is like soil. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, fertile ground. The fertile ground is there, unnoticed, taken for granted, always there to be trodden upon. It is silent, inconspicuous, dark, and yet it is always ready to receive any seed, ready to give it substance and life. The more lowly, the more fruitful.”
The Rev. Robert Andrews is retired pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church in Danville. Read more of his work at robertjohnandrews.com.