Thoughts on Thanksgiving Day

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Crossing West End Avenue. Photo: JH.

Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2021. Sunny and slightly colder yesterday in New York in the mid 40s, with temperatures dropping into the 30s after nightfall.

When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts, we’d had snow — at least flurries and some dusting — by this time of the year. The foliage was gone, the trees plaintive and denuded, the landscape brown, grey and dull. The significance of the holiday for the kid was abetted by the long holiday weekend which presaged the Christmas/New Years school vacation that was coming in less than four weeks.

The day was like a Sunday. Warm house, women in the kitchen preparing the elaborate dinner. The local high school football game was over by early afternoon. Everyone went home for the Thanksgiving feast. Extra chairs were set around the dining room table to accommodate visiting family members. And then the long nap that set in for the older ones, thanks to the tryptophan and carbs.

Growing up in New England, Thanksgiving was the holiday to accommodate the lore of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, especially for us schoolchildren. For us, this was where America started and why it was. Nathaniel Philbrick’s compelling history of that amazing venture, Mayflower (Viking publishers, 2006), is not only an eye-opener about those religious rebels who crossed the great ocean to start a life of freedom their way, but it also leaves you wondering how their story turned into such a glossy, even at times absurd myth about their lives. Nevertheless, hardship and struggle and those dangerous “Indians” who could and would be life threatening was the real lot of the “innocent” Pilgrims. And out of it all emerged a national holiday which celebrates this America. And togetherness of family.

Irony being history’s child, my generation has lived long enough to see all of that challenged — by men and women, not by words but by actions and attitude toward others outside their realm of interests.

After I grew up and went away to college, ostensibly moving to a new life, Thanksgiving remained steadfast. Although family now extended and ofttimes — to friends. The myths of the Pilgrims and their muskets and rapprochement with the “Indians,” and their feathers and wampum, disappeared from our celebration — except perhaps in the table settings and decorative colors of the autumn foliage.

Dinner had become ritual, the menu its icon; its spiritual gift the pleasure of people together at table. Throughout my thirties and forties, my houses were filled with a variety of friends and people “who had no family/nowhere to go.” At this time in my life I fit neatly into that category as well. Although thanks to my professional life, the “nowhere-to-go” is erroneous, and at times I would often even rather stay home and read a book or watch a movie. Solo.

On this day I am going to be a guest at the table of friends and their family. Whatever it will be, it will be lively and abundant. And hopeful. Indeed, Thanksgiving remains an almost religious holiday for all Americans: it symbolizes abundance and hope. And lo, Americans have been imbued by God and fate (whichever you prefer) with both.

Ironically, Americans at this time in our history also seem to be confronted with a similarly fearsome vibe as the one that permeated the early days of the Plymouth Colony, like an impending threat to peace of mind, or survival. There is uncertainty of many kinds across the land.

This current state of trepidation and uncertainty, however, still has nothing on the plight of those plucky, driven, ambitious, impassioned settlers who came to the New World, and created this holiday. Their uncertainty was more intense than anything we can imagine for everything was unknown to them, and often in the dark. There was no technology to enhance the experience of experience, and to provide light. Fear and danger were always close by. Almost five hundred years later, however, we, their descendants, are comforted, even cosseted, by what has transformed civilization. There’s the thanks, in all this, for all of us.

I’ve spent the last 29 Thanksgivings in New York. And, as it was when I was growing up in New England, it feels like a Sunday. The city gets very quiet. In the neighborhoods you see fewer people on the street and far fewer cars.

In my neighborhood which is totally residential except for the small businesses that cater to us, many people go away for the long weekend. When you do see people on the street, they are often whole families, sometimes two and three generations, coming or going. No one is in a hurry, however. The pace is almost leisurely.

The weatherman has forecast some partly cloudy Sun with temps in the low 50s, so we will probably see more people out this year. By 4:30 in the afternoon when it begins to get dark and the lights go on in the apartment building windows, as it is all across America, dinners will be winding down. By 7:30 or 8, people will be on the sidewalks, hailing cabs to take them home. It will be a quiet night in New York, all frenzy sedated. Friday will arrive and feel like a Saturday. Saturday will feel like the bonus no-school day, and soon we will return to our natural state and all its contemporary encumbrances. Lest we forget: As you have seen on this page, JH has provided witness to the beauty of this moment with his photographs, in this great city in the early 21st century. Happy Thanksgiving.

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