When I was a little girl in the 1930s, my father would often say especially on Thanksgiving "Thank the Lord we're not on the dole."
I didn't know what a dole was, but I understood that it was connected to the fact that he had a job and didn't need the government's help. I understood that times were bad.
I knew there were families living in camps just outside our little Texas farm town that the government paid for. I knew there were people who were hungry.
My parents worried about the farms that couldn't grow crops anymore. I knew what drought was. I walked home from school some days with a wet hankerchief tied around my nose and mouth by the teacher to filter out the choking red dust that filled the air like fog.
But I didn't know about the stock market crash in 1929. I didn't know about breadlines and soup kitchens and food riots. In 1932, the year I was born, unemployment had soared to 28 percent. Even by 1939, only 3 percent of Americans had enough income to owe any taxes.
But we were lucky. I don't remember ever going to bed hungry. Dad fished and hunted, and my mother had a garden. Sometimes dad's customers paid him with a side of pork or beef or produce when they had no money.
On Thanksgiving Day, we usually visited my grandparents, who hadn't yet abandoned their farm. There couldn't have been much cause for celebrating the annual harvest in those days of failing crops, but, still, we did.
Sometimes our feast was one of my grandmother's hens rather than traditional turkey. Othetimes it was rabbit or quail shot by the men the night before, rather than a traditional turkey. But we had the trimmings: pumpkin pie, home-canned green beans, mashed potatoes and yams.
In 1620, a poorly provisioned English ship called the Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod in November with 102 Pilgrims on board. Half of them died of starvation and disease within three months of setting foot on land. Only four of the women and a few older children survived the winter. Had the local Wampanoag Indians not shared with them their stores of maize, dried berries and walnuts, as well as their hunting and fishing skills, the death toll most certainly would have been even worse.
In November 1621, the survivors of the Plymouth colony decided to celebrate their small harvest of corn and barley with a feast, perhaps feeling nostalgic for the Harvest Home festivals, long a tradition in England. Colonist Edward Winslow wrote in his journal a month later that many of the Indians joined them, including "their greatest king, Massasoit," with 90 men. The Indians had a tradition of thanksgiving festivals, too, and contributed five deer. For three days, they feasted on duck, goose, wild turkey, clams, eels, leeks, watercress, wheat and corn breads, wild plums, beer, wine and puddings, and they enjoyed a variety of entertainment.
More than 200 years later, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to commemorate that event on the last Thursday of November, making official a national tradition already well-established.
Then, in a move foreshadowing today's consumerism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed in 1939 that Thanksgiving Day would henceforth be observed on the fourth Thursday in November. Federated Department Stores Chief Fred Lazarus Jr. had persuaded the president that a longer Christmas shopping season would help the economy.
So has Thanksgiving Day become just a launching pad for the annual winter holiday economic boost? In this time of unimaginable bounty, the idea of a harvest festival hardly makes any sense. We feast every day on food we buy in stores or restaurants all year round.
Still, we Americans love the holiday. Then what gives it meaning? What do we have in common with the half-starved Pilgrims of 1621 or impoverished families of the 1930s?
We have the same communal experience. Being together. Cooking the turkey together. Watching the football game together. Giving thanks together. And keeping alive the most ancient and sacred ritual of survival in the collective memory of our kind eating together.
Contact Vivian Taylor on-line at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 474-1386.