Now As Then: "Thanksgiving Day—1941"

Well, it took me some time to get it. Thanksgiving, I mean. Being German, I was unaccustomed to the holiday when I moved to the United States in the early 1990s. I didn’t quite understand what Steve Martin’s character in Trains, Planes & Automobiles was so desperately rushing home to . . . until I had lived long enough on American soil to sense the significance of this day. Now that I am living in Britain and, unlike last year, not flying back to America to observe it, I wish I could import the tradition.

I don’t mean to ship over all the trimmings and fixings, the pies and the parade. Just the concept of an annual get-together that encourages one to reflect upon what matters in life—provided that those who matter as “family” are understood to be any gathering of people (and, Montague insists, pets) whose presence spells home.

To the horror of some, an Americanized Halloween has caught on big time here during the last few years. Why not a grown-up holiday like Thanksgiving, regardless of the direction in which the Pilgrims were heading? With an eye to the future, I am not even being ahistorical.

A feast in defiance of the old saw that you can’t go home again, Thanksgiving is often thought of as an occasion to wax nostalgic. Sure, it is a time to look back; but that does not mean it should exhaust itself in sentimentality. It can be an incentive to pull through, an event for which people pull themselves and one other together in the face of adversities. Belittled as a ritualistic tripping on tryptophan, bemoaned as an annual family headcount that starts with the headache of getting there and ends in a bellyache, getting back, Thanksgiving still compels millions to travel hundreds of miles and, unlike Christmas, has remained remarkably free from commercialism. It mobilizes more folks than a national election. It is a day of the people, not of corporation (unless you are running an airline). And despite its culinary excesses, it is simple, solid, and reassuringly primal in its cheering of the harvest and the life we owe the land and its natural riches.

A celebration “wholly of our earth,” is how the aforementioned American poet Stephen Vincent Benét expressed the meaning of the day in a speech delivered by actor Brian Donlevy and broadcast on 19 November 1941, just a few weeks before the US entered the Second World War. “This year it is and must be a sober feast,” Benét reminded the listener. Even if the attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise, the bombs over London were clear enough signs of the perils ahead:

Today, one hundred and thirty million Americans keep the day they first set apart. We all know what Thanksgiving is—it’s turkey day and pumpkin pie day—the day of the meeting of friends and the gathering of families. It does not belong to any one creed or stock among us, it does not honor any one great man. It is the whole family’s day when we can all get together, think over the past months a little, feel a sense of harvest, a kinship with our land. It is one of the most secure and friendly of all our feasts. And yet it was first founded in insecurity, by men who stood up to danger. And that spirit is still alive.

“The democracy we cherish,” Benét concluded,

is the work of many years and many men. But as those first men and women first gave thanks, in a dark hour, for the corn that meant life to them, so let us give thanks today—not for the little things of the easy years but for the land we cherish, the way of life we honor, and the freedom we shall maintain.

If it is set aside to cherish land, life, and liberty, Thanksgiving cannot mean a retreat into the home, a shutting of doors and a closing of one’s eyes to the responsibilities that lie beyond the closest circle of relatives and friends: the duties of citizenship and the challenges of living in a global community. Some of the liberties fought for, the life and the land enjoyed in the past are now being threatened; not by foreigners alone, but by those of us who rely on or deal in outmoded constructs, who promote the concept of nation while defying the communal for their own profit.

“There are many days in the year that we celebrate,” Benét remarked, “but this one is wholly of our earth.” Although he might have meant his native ground—his speech being a pep talk to potential soldiers and a rallying cry for the home that soon would turn front—it won’t hurt to misread him, to consider “our earth” to be that truly common ground we share and to reflect on the global crises that may lie ahead and that, if at all, can only be met jointly. I hope we are “still alive” to this “spirit” and am thankful to those who keep on conjuring it.

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