I recently learned that my sisters are changing their traditional Thanksgiving celebrations this year. Long distances are involved as are concerns about coronavirus. They are mothers and grandmothers, reluctant to forego the heart-brightening-and-lightening presence of their offspring and the “grands” they so adore – and, in some cases, have not hugged for far too long. These are difficult days indeed.
My mind wandered back to other difficult times. I tried to imagine Thanksgiving observations during the Great Depression, get-togethers that were mere shadows of those celebrated before and after the years of struggle. My father’s family was unable to spend several Thanksgivings together: my dad’s seat at the table remained empty, not only on Thanksgiving but every single day for entire years as he fulfilled his Army duties – in harm’s way in Europe. I myself recall our muted Thanksgiving Day almost a week after President Kennedy’s death. And Thanksgiving 2001 was quietly sobering in the aftermath of September 11.
Online I read about how folks handled unsettling changes in this most American of holidays during our most turbulent times and lowest points. Here is a paraphrased anecdote from EVG: In November of 1929 several New England clergymen discussed Thanksgiving Day services. With no relief from ever-longer breadlines or all-time lows in the stock market, they decided to skirt the subject of giving thanks: in the midst of such widespread distress, there was little to be thankful for. An elderly rabbi urged the opposite: “This is the time for the nation to get matters in perspective…to give thanks for the blessings that have always been present, now suppressed due to hardship.”
In “How World War II Changed Thanksgiving 75 Years Ago,” blogger Karen Lee detailed a third consecutive wartime Thanksgiving: “beloved traditions had to change…no Macy’s Parade after the company donated the rubber in its famous balloons to the war effort…fewer football games due to the number of men in the military…Thanksgiving dinner held earlier or later to accommodate family members working the holiday in war industries…traveling curtailed, with gasoline and tires rationed…bus and train travel discouraged to open seats for service members on furlough…sugar, cheese, butter, margarine still rationed, challenging those hoping to make favorite dishes…the military’s huge demand for turkey for the troops made the bird hard to buy…despite challenges and changes in Thanksgiving 1944, people were generally willing to sacrifice…”
On November 4, 1963, President Kennedy officially proclaimed November 28 a national day of Thanksgiving: “Much time has passed since the first colonists came to the shores of an unknown continent…since President Washington led a young people into nationhood…since President Lincoln saw the American nation through the ordeal of fraternal war – now in these years our population, our plenty and our power have grown…for this we give our humble thanks…we must never forget the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them…”
Almost three weeks later the world witnessed November 22 and the events that followed until, on Thanksgiving Day, President Johnson addressed a nation still reeling: “All of us have lived through 7 days none of us will ever forget. We are not given the divine wisdom why this has been, but we are given the human duty of determining what is to be for America, for the cause we lead, for the hopes that live in our hearts. A great leader is dead; a great nation must move on. Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose. I am resolved that we shall win the tomorrows before us.”
Then nineteen years ago, 72 days after the terrorist attacks on America, we attempted to celebrate our national day of thanks as traditionally as possible. Writer C and y Sagon described the emotions that continued to color our collective national experience that year: “People seeking solace…comfort in ritual and tradition…wanting to temporarily forget…to concentrate on something consoling, something familiar…some focusing on what we can’t do…grandparents opting to stay home, trips to relatives canceled…a holiday tinged with sadness and broken traditions…”
So here we are on the eve of Thanksgiving 2020. Just when we need the familiar, the traditional, the customary to soften unrest and disruption of inner peace, we find ourselves struggling with acceptance and denial of current conditions, struggling to define appropriate responses to difficult circumstances, struggling with weariness of the long interruption in the daily routines upon which we depend, struggling with divisive discontent, struggling with the overwhelming desire for it all to just be over. We are repeating – almost down to the last detail – America’s reactions to that previous pandemic almost one hundred years ago as the Spanish flu raged.
For tomorrow, I wish us all the perspective urged by the old rabbi, the wartime spirit of willing sacrifice, JFK’s plea to live our appreciation and LBJ’s determination to win our tomorrows, the post 9/11 balance between what we can and cannot do.
Tomorrow I will miss last year’s joyous Thanksgiving celebration with so many of us in one place, even as we missed our parents so terribly. But as my Urbana sister, her husband and son, and I carefully celebrate, expressions of strength-in-truth by two wise people will guide me in my thankfulness:
Charles Dickens: “Reflect upon our blessings, of which we all have many – not on our misfortunes, of which we all have some.”
My mother, Esther Maurice Scott: “This too shall pass.”