Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, mostly because so little of the way we celebrate it makes much sense. In school, I learned most of the history behind Thanksgiving through a series of confusing school plays. These involved brightly colored Indians (now referred to as Native Americans), some well-dressed Pilgrims (now referred to as people who thought they were Native Americans), and large quantities of corn (still referred to as corn—evidently, this one stuck).
As far as I could tell, this guy Chris gets lost at sea (actually, he got three ships worth of people lost) and stumbles on to North America. He figures he better think of something quick, because a lot of angry sailors at that moment are trying to figure out why they aren’t looking at India. After conferring with some of the local Native Americans, he decides that he has “discovered” a “new world,” conveniently forgetting the people who had lived there for centuries who’d just told him he’d discovered it in the first place. This news takes some of the edge off of getting lost, which can be a tough thing to explain to a Queen who gave you three ships in the expectation that you would return them loaded with Indian spices.
Regardless, some years later a number of English citizens set sail for this place on purpose and they didn’t get lost—although they were forced to come ashore in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which ain’t no picnic. All I remember about these Pilgrims were the very large hats with buckles on them, which I can only assume were spares for the even larger belt buckles they wore (they must have assumed that the new world required much heavier pants). They, too, tried in the best Columbus tradition to ignore the fact that the Native Americans had already set up shop. As they began dying of starvation, however, they extended the good neighbor policy and invited the “Indians” over for supper. Since that day, every school hallway in the country is stinking with pictures of poorly drawn turkeys, tables full of food, and, yes… corn
Originally a religious holiday to give thanks to God for the harvest, it’s gradually transformed into a secular kickoff to the holiday season; just as Labor Day signals that white pants should be closeted until spring, Black Friday announces the nonstop Christmas barrage that paints discretionary spending as a national responsibility. Binge eating is not only expected but encouraged, as is the sight of your tipsy uncle napping in front of the Cowboys game on TV.
Luckily, the idea of giving thanks in a palpable way is still alive thanks to the dedication of special people for whom sharing with their neighbors is a way of life. Donations of old clothes, linens, blankets or money are needed year-round at homeless shelters like the Prospect House in Bridgeport (203-576-9041), Spooner House in Shelton (www.actspooner.org), the Bridgeport Rescue Mission (203-333-4087), or Operation Hope in Fairfield (www.operationhopect.org). Soup kitchens run by organizations like Hunger Outreach prepared and served over 1,000,000 meals last year through a network of over 34 food kitchens in Greater Bridgeport, pantries and mobile units made up of mostly volunteers working seven days a week, 365 days a year. (For more information, please contact Byron Crosdale at firstname.lastname@example.org.) For those who like to mix their philanthropy with exercise, the Stratford Masonic Bodies presents The Ninth Annual Turkey Day Trot on Thanksgiving Day morning at 8:15 (www.hitekracing.com/turkeytrot). The 5K road race benefits the needy in our community over the holidays.
The people that run organizations like these deserve recognition for keeping the spirit of this holiday alive. Remember Chris, the quick thinker with no sense of direction who lucked into the history books because he ignored an entire race of people? Well, he eventually got his own holiday, although (like him, ironically) it’s quickly being lost in the Federally Mandated Holiday Shuffle as “optional” in many places. On the other hand, Thanksgiving continues to be recognized as a tribute to the cooperative spirit that this country was founded upon. We celebrate this solemn ideal by floating large cartoon animals through downtown city streets, getting up at 4 AM the next day to be the among the first to shop at Target, and making cold turkey sandwiches for weeks afterwards. It might not make much sense, but that doesn’t make Thanksgiving any less special.