- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008


Yesterday, my family drove “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” in Ohio to celebrate Thanksgiving. We joined 37.2 million of our fellow citizens on the road (6.2 million will travel by other means). It is the peak travel week of the year.

Why? Because Thanksgiving is America’s greatest holiday. A presumptuous answer, perhaps - but I think it’s true. It’s certainly my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving is about family, friends, food, fellowship and football. It’s what a holiday should be.

Thanksgiving goes back to the beginning years of our country. Most people are familiar with the story of what they believe was the first Thanksgiving, held by the pilgrims in Plymouth Colony in 1621. The three-day feast to which Squanto and his fellow Native Americans were invited was, however, a harvest celebration. The first actual Thanksgiving observance, in Massachusetts, was not held until 1623.

All of this, however, is irrelevant to some Virginians, who point out that America’s first Thanksgiving observance was held on Dec. 4, 1619, at Berkley Plantation on the James River on by settlers, whose charter mandated that the date of their landing be commemorated annually “as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Thanksgiving observances are held at Berkley Plantation to this day.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony held its first Thanksgiving celebration in 1630, and in 1680 it became an annual observance. Connecticut followed suit and throughout the 18th century other colonies held Thanksgiving observances

In 1777, the Continental Congress issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation and in 1789 George Washington became the first president to do so. Subsequently, Thanksgiving proclamations were made by Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863 and the holiday has been observed yearly since then (on the fourth Tuesday of November).

By the early 1900s Thanksgiving had pretty much become the celebration we know today. The Detroit Lions began hosting a Thanksgiving football game in 1934, and, with the first televising of that game in the 1950s the last element of the modern-day Thanksgiving celebration was put in place.

Thanksgiving is about family, and friends who are like family, but it’s about the American family as well, almost all of whom, from Donald Trump to the man in the homeless shelter, enjoy the same menu.

Appropriately for this most American celebration, all the main dishes of the feast – turkey, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – are native to America.

All families have their own special ways of observing Thanksgiving, of course. In our case, the day begins for me by making breakfast in the kitchen as the bird is being prepared and appropriating some of the sausage frying on the stove for use in the stuffing.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is on in the kitchen TV as background for my wife and daughters’ chopping, slicing and dicing activities. (My own special task is the preparation of the relish tray - a Thanksgiving tradition in our family since the 1950s).

Breakfast is followed by a hike in the nearby woods with whatever kids can be corralled into going along. (When I was younger this was usually a - generally feckless - rabbit hunting expedition.)

When the weather is good this is a deeply satisfying experience. The chill in the air is invigorating and there is a serene calm, a soft breeze rustling the remaining leaves on the trees and the wan sunlight bathing the scene with a soft glow.

The calm is punctuated occasionally by a scampering rabbit or running deer or by a surprised pheasant or grouse taking flight. From the hilltops surrounding the village you can see smoke rising from the chimneys and hear the occasional dog barking. Otherwise all is quiet.

In a couple of hours we return home, leaving the cold behind and embracing the inviting warmth of the house. We take in the first football game of the day, and then, the turkey is carved. The dinner conversation is warm.

Later, stuffed and contented we move to the family room for more football and family game time, providing a “decent interval” before the pumpkin pie and other desserts are served. As evening sets in, people begin to nod off comfortably, one or two snoring to the amusement of others.

The day fades out as quietly as it began, yet there is no sense of letdown. Tomorrow after all, the Christmas season begins.

Before beginning dinner, one of our Thanksgiving traditions is a reading from the Book of Common Prayer.

As I read the prayer, which lists a host of things for which we should give thanks, I add one of my own: I give thanks for Thanksgiving Day itself.

James C. Roberts is president of Radio America and the American Veterans Center.

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