Thanksgiving, surrounded by Halloween, and sandwiched in before Christmas, appears to have lost all traction in the holiday sweepstakes. I can remember Thanksgiving being special for family gatherings that simply were not possible with the precocious unpredictability of weather at Christmas. Yes, there were Thanksgivings with snow, but it was not of the epic and life stalling variety which can appear after the winter solstice. People actually watched the Macy's Christmas parade instead of standing in the cold in front of Macy's. People actually attended Thanksgiving services at church.
I also remember literal feasts with dishes that we only saw on the table once a year. Everyone had a job to fulfill. The usual arrangement consisted of women in the kitchen, gossiping and preparing. Children were relegated to the family room or basement, so as not to disrupt the watching of football by the men in the living room. Dinner was carefully timed around the game schedules. Dad or Grandpa did the turkey dissection at the head of the dining table which was groaning under the weight of platters. The house was jam packed like an L train at rush hour. In addition to family, there were friends around the table, people claiming the honorary title of aunt or uncle. And the smell of roasting turkey, pumpkin spice, and hot crescent rolls filled every corner, overwhelming the senses before you even had a taste.
The concept of Christmas shopping occurring on Thanksgiving day was unheard of. If you came up short on butter or eggs, you would have to rely on the neighbor's pantry. After consuming the bounty on the table, people were barely capable of making their way to cars for the drive home, let alone sit in parking lots, waiting anxiously to rush the doors at the stroke of 10PM or 12AM. Besides, nobody had any room for dessert at dinner time, so early evening was when the pies were cut, the whipped cream disbursed, and gallons of hot coffee drunk to offset the beers shared around the televised football games.
One wonders if genetic modifications of our food supply include the removal of tryptophan from the turkey. Judging from the shopping frenzy, nobody seems to require the after gluttony nap. And if everyone is out shopping, then who is packaging up the leftovers? Making the parcels for the guests to take home so that you didn't have to eat turkey for the next month until Christmas? Even with automatic dishwashers, Thanksgiving could refill the machine several times over again. Usually, every dish and piece of flatware in the house was required to set the table. While looking at the determined shoppers, another image, of overflowing sinks, and haphazardly packed refrigerators loomed in my mind.
Friday wasn't marked by shopping either. Friday was the day for raising the Christmas tree, and in some families, that included actually going out into the weather in search of said tree, which could represent anything from the Christmas tree lot by the gas station on the corner, to foraging in the woods for the perfect tree, cutting it down, dragging it out, lashing it to the car. If we were not suffering a blinding blizzard, the man of the house would be doing his best impersonation of Clark Griswold, stringing lights from gutters and downspouts, festooning the chimney, and generally trying not to fall off the ladder or slide off the roof. And of course, once in place, half the lights didn't work. Boxes were dragged from attic and basement, filled with ornaments and garland, and more strings of tangled Christmas lights. And then that breathtaking moment, when the switch is finally flipped, wondering if the power grid would collapse under the demand. Come to think of it, you might have called it Black Friday, because the expletives were most certainly not deleted.
Moms and Grandmoms were frazzled, trying to restore order after the thundering herd of relatives had departed. Back in the day, there was a flurry of cleaning and organizing before company arrived, followed by another whirlwind of spit and polish after they left. Despite there being approximately four weeks until the Christmas holiday, everything had to be perfect and pristine, because you never knew when a holiday well wisher might appear on the doorstep, armed with homemade cookies or quick breads, fudge or brickle. Christmas carolers, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family would drop in at will. In the spirit of sharing and caring, the rules of etiquette regarding invites, acceptance, and announcements were suspended. There was always room for one more at the table. Hot coffee, tea or cocoa could be put on the stove at any time. Thanksgiving was where I learned about the custom of never returning an empty plate or bowl. Even if the caller brought treats, they were sent home with just as many treats from your household.
In fact, the day after Thanksgiving signaled the start of Christmas baking season. A good hostess could never be caught without baked treats to offer her guests at the holiday season. Cookies, candy and pastry competed for oven space and then cupboard space, awaiting the arrival of guests. How many? When? Nobody actually knew. Many treats were packaged up in tins decorated with Normal Rockwell scenes to be given as gifts to neighbors. It was a subtle competition to determine who in the neighborhood was the best hand at baking. Secret ingredients were not shared, and recipes were not passed. The family kolachky recipe went to the grave with my father, who learned it directly from his mother while confined at home with rheumatic fever as a boy. The difference might be minute, butter versus margarine, or lard versus Crisco, but the actual ingredients and ratios were state secrets. It was a treat to be allowed to help with the baking, and perhaps snag a bit of raw cookie dough when nobody was looking.
Friday was the day that Christmas cards were addressed and envelopes stamped for delivery to the post office early on Saturday. I can remember stacks that totaled 200 or more. Everything was handwritten, no computers and printers, no label makers. In order to insure that every relative, neighbor, friend, and co-worker received their Christmas greetings before the actual holiday, the race was on to make sure that they were in the box before Thanksgiving weekend was over. And usually, the cards began arriving the following Monday or Tuesday, to be mounted on the wall with scotch tape. Another form of subtle competition was the grand total of Christmas cards that a family displayed.
I miss Thanksgiving!
Filed under: Musings