Thanksgiving, a Meaningful Holiday for Americans | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Thanksgiving, a Meaningful Holiday for Americans 

Taking a Gander

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Even before I retired, seeing the world was on my bucket list. Luckily, I've had the opportunity to travel our planet extensively—over 85 countries, at last count. With the exception of the Cradle of Civilization—between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—and the hostile snow and ice of Antarctica, there is no major region I haven't visited.

Sadly Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq are considered dangerous for Americans, but that doesn't mean I've totally given up my interest to travel there.

Traveling has provided me a personal perspective of our world and a greater appreciation for the cultural differences that have divided mankind. It has opened-up my eyes to both the uniqueness of each region and to the realization that people, everywhere, are so much alike.

The places I loved most were those that presented an acute cultural shock—places where people have been doing the same things, in the same ways, for millennia. Each time I've traveled, I've marveled at how much older everything is outside our "New World," and I've felt some disappointment, even sadness, that our country doesn't have much in the way of traditions.

Unlike Uncle Sam's mere 246 years of age, the world around us is replete with antiquities, customs, clothing, religions and architecture that date back many hundreds—even thousands—of years. I've stood, in awe, at ruins that dated back to over 4,000 B.C.

I remember my first trip abroad; it was a striking contrast to home. My first words, strolling down a quiet lane in Europe, were an expression of amazement, followed by a simple thought: "Americans don't know what the word 'old' means." (My wife Carol received her master's degree from the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, a school given its official charter in the year 1457. Now that's old!)

Traveling emphasizes an understanding and perspective. It creates the realization that our country is barely to the toddler stage. So nothing here qualifies as old.

Even the remaining visible artifacts of America's indigenous peoples date back a paltry 900 years or so. That sounded pretty old the first time I visited Mesa Verde. Now I realize that 900 years is really young when compared to most of our world.

Despite its short history, the U.S. has created some traditions of its own, including a number of holidays that commemorate and honor important people and events of the past. Perhaps the grandest of all is our celebration of the first Thanksgiving Day, a holiday that honors bountiful harvests and draws our attention to those things we value most.

But, if you ever asked your friends in Oslo, "What are your plans for Thanksgiving?" they would likely be clueless. I think Americans just take it for granted that our holidays exist throughout the world. But Thanksgiving really was exclusively ours until Canada later adopted it for their own harvest celebration.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were not adequately provisioned nor prepared for self-sufficiency. Without some pointers on how to survive that first year, most of them would have died, and the United States of America may have never been born. It was the native Americans, mostly from the Wampanoag tribe, who are believed to have taught the colony how to survive.

Only one year later, and blessed with a bounteous crop, the colonists set three days aside for a special celebration of their survival. The exact dates aren't known, but the first Thanksgiving feast was held sometime between September and November of 1631, and there were some Native Americans in attendance. No one knows for sure whether they were invited—or merely stumbled upon the festivities—but there's no question that they were there.

As a matter of curiosity, historians are pretty sure that turkey wasn't on that first Thanksgiving menu. More likely, there was lots of venison, and there's evidence that much of the feast may have been provided by the Indians who attended.

The idea of a Thanksgiving Day was no new concept. Virtually all areas of the world have some kind of festivities to celebrate the harvest. So in a sense, most countries do have a form of Thanksgiving feast, some dating back to various pagan holidays.

It may surprise you, but our own Thanksgiving Day was never official until Abraham Lincoln—in 1863, smack-dab in the middle of the Civil War—set the fourth Thursday of November as America's official day of thanks. It has become the top excuse for binge overeating, the day before the new diet begins, and it's been a boon for the turkey farms and New England cranberry providers.

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday of the year, and it's easy to see why. Unlike Christmas, it is centered around the value of families and friends, rather than the screaming excesses of buying and giving that have detracted so much from the message of Christmas love. The sad part is that while we celebrate Thanksgiving, much of the world is beset by wars, drought and mass migrations of people who may never know the joy of plenty nor the blessing of peace.

It is a custom in some American families to have each person at the feast express thanks for those things they love most. For most Americans, that's not hard. But we must remember and try to make a difference for those who cannot count on a full tummy, a warm hearth or the protective walls of a home.

The author is a retired novelist, columnist and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog

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