Published 1:01 am, Friday, November 27, 2009
Sometimes Thanksgiving is an away game. Instead of hosting a dozen or two relatives and friends, we travel, and we are the guests. Sometimes, even, we are guests in someone else's country, and yet we find a way to gather and celebrate the founding legend of our own.
My wife Madeline is an American national who spent part of her childhood in Peru. (Her father worked for a New York bank, and since it couldn't open up a branch in Fairfield, it had to open one in Lima.) Her parents, she says, entertained 30 or 40 fellow Americans on Thanksgiving Day, although their own nearest relatives (not counting the children, of course) were in Philadelphia, a full day away by airliner. She has a vivid recollection of the turkey they ate, because it was raised in their courtyard and had been alive that morning. The other detail she remembers distinctly is that the feast was at lunchtime. Afterward, the children went back to school and the men went back to work. Thanksgiving was not a holiday in Peru, and the schools and the jobs expected them to return after lunch.
I also asked my new son-in-law about his Thanksgiving in Afghanistan last year, and he obliged me in wonderful detail. He spent it, he said, at a combat outpost, or COP. "It wasn't eventful, really, a day off from combat operations" -- except that it wasn't entirely a day off. He wrote of the Army tradition of officers and senior NCOs serving the troops on Thanksgiving Day. That made me think of a similar ecclesiastical tradition, in which bishops wash the feet of the poor at Easter, and that it symbolizes the officers' duty to care for their troops. There was, he continued, only one television at the COP, and no reception for a football game, so the soldiers had a soccer tournament. Just as his platoon was winning, though, they had to change back into their uniforms and become soldiers again, because they were the quick reaction force -- it was their turn to do this -- and there was an IED to be checked out in one of the villages. It was not a full holiday there either, but like my wife's family in Peru, the soldiers were able to celebrate it in the time they had.
I suppose that observing Thanksgiving outside of America -- especially in an environment that does not permit it to be a full holiday -- pares the experience down to its essentials. And I think that without the relatives, and the excess, and the football games on TV, and even without the Pilgrim story of the perilous voyage and the tenuous foothold on the new shore, the essence of the day is eating the same food as the other Americans "back home" and thereby sharing a sort of communion with them. It is a day to give thanks that we are Americans.
Here is a final example. In 1939, there were five Thursdays in November, and Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Thanksgiving on the fourth one, rather than on the last one. A year with five Thursdays occurs about twice out of every seven, and Pres. Abraham Lincoln having proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1863, it is a little surprising that this had not presented a problem until 1939. Still, there it was: FDR had broken with the pattern, and now 1939 was The Year of Two Thanksgivings. There were 23 states (including New York) that joined the federal government in observing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday, 23 states (including Connecticut) that adhered to the last Thursday, and two that celebrated both. The given reason was that waiting until the last Thursday, Nov. 30, would have pushed the opening day of the Christmas shopping season into December, making the season too short, and the retail economy needed all the help it could get. But consider for a moment what else was going on at the time: Germany had invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, igniting the Second World War in Europe, and Japan had been fighting in China since 1937. We know also that Roosevelt had to tiptoe around the Neutrality Act, and a certain amount of isolationism, waiting until after the Battle of Britain was won before signing the destroyers-for-bases agreement, and waiting until after he had won his third term, in 1940, before proclaiming the Four Freedoms and signing the Lend-Lease Act in early 1941. This example, too, shows our tremendous capacity to ignore the rest of the world when we give thanks that we are Americans.
But I think we ignore the rest of the world at out peril.