Although special days of thanksgiving have been common in most religions and cultures for millennia, Thanksgiving in the United States is a uniquely unifying American tradition. Prior to the American Revolution, days of thanksgiving were primarily proclaimed by New England church leaders in response to local or regional abundance. President George Washington designated November 26, 1789, as the first national day of thanksgiving. After 1789, however, thanksgiving observations were carried on as separate state-specific holidays, until President Lincoln established a continuing national observance on the last Thursday of November in 1862 (changed to the fourth Thursday in 1941).
It is a happy coincidence that Thanksgiving quickly follows national (and many state) elections. The holiday quickly displaces the rancor and divisiveness of campaign season with the unity of shared national gratitude and awe.
And Thanksgiving truly is a universal American observance. Though New England traditions predominate, regional and familial variations are extremely common, especially among immigrant families recently arrived. I am acquainted with several recently immigrated families who have adopted and adapted the holiday to their own traditions. The pattern is similar across cultures and decades. First, the immigrant generation celebrates the day with foods and customs imported from their homeland. As that generation’s children reach adulthood, traditional American foods and customs make their way into the family celebration. By the third generation, the family observances tend toward the New England standard, with imported side dishes serving as the primary connection to the origin culture.
I witnessed this progression in my own family. My mother’s parents immigrated from Lebanon and my father’s parents from Greece. My earliest Thanksgiving memories are of celebrations at my maternal grandparents’ home, with seven pairs of aunts and uncles and nearly thirty first cousins. Those earliest Thanksgiving Day meals were Middle Eastern feasts, with flat Arabic bread, kibbi (baked ground meat with bulgur wheat, pine nuts and spices), Lebanese-style chicken and rice, stuffed cabbage rolls, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh, and many other favorite Lebanese dishes. In those early years, a turkey might be present, but wasn’t the star. But pumpkin and other pies held places of honor on the dessert table, right next to platters of baklava. Over time, American Thanksgiving traditions began to gain prominence, with turkey, stuffing, cranberries, etc., becoming the center of the meal, and the Lebanese delicacies shifting into supporting roles. It was much the same on the paternal side of my family, with platters of pastitio and moussaka becoming expected complements to turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes.
Such fusions of origin culture customs and American tradition play out in tens of millions of families across the United States, decade after decade. It is a visceral display of the interplay of American unity, American individualism and American pluralism, that has always been the cornerstone of American strength and exceptionalism. And it makes for quite a feast at any family table.
Ridgefield Democrats wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.
Alex Harris is Chair of the Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee, which provides this column.