There are few things sadder than a Thanksgiving table surrounded by empty chairs. Wartime brings such heart-wrenching tableaux: the missing soldier, the absent daughter, the stranded son. And now the missing include a strange new category: the father who was incinerated while sitting at a desk or frantically whispering his good-byes to loved ones over a cellphone as terrorists crashed a plane into a building. His widow and children, desolate and bereft, are unlikely to overflow with thanks on this funereal Thursday.
Thanksgiving has evolved over the years into a celebration of the family, and those Americans not blinded by Second World War nostalgia understand that war and militarism are the family's most ferocious enemies. The common fear as Americans sit down to Thanksgiving dinner 2001, and the country's troops are deployed in Afghanistan, is that the chairs might not all be filled come Thanksgiving 2002.
So the grace that is said before the turkey is carved will be a little less perfunctory this year. "God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food," may be a weak rhyme, but it will be said with a new vigor.
Thanksgiving is usually our loveliest secular holiday, a cornucopia of pumpkin pie, stuffing, football and, of course, the emblematic and savory turkey. The enduring image of Thanksgiving is of the English Pilgrims, newly arrived on these shores, sitting down to a three-day harvest feast in 1621 with 90 Wampanoag Indians, as native and immigrant enjoy cooked squash and fellowship and pan-racial harmony. It's really quite a beautiful dream, and has sometimes come true.
President George Washington issued a National Thanksgiving Proclamation on 26 November 1789, but his successors dropped the practice on the grounds that Thanksgiving was a holiday peculiar to New England. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb", made the cause her own, preaching poetically of the need for an American day of gratitude, but it took the horrible, fratricidal American Civil War to nationalize Thanksgiving. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving and a legal holiday on which Americans were to thank "Almighty God" for "the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies".
He also commended to God's "tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers" during wartime – a request that takes on special meaning this Thanksgiving for 5,000-plus families in New York City and its environs, afflicted first by the destruction of the World Trade Center and then by last week's plane crash in Queens.
Subsequent presidents fiddled with the date, finally settling on Lincoln's recommended last Thursday in November, until the unsentimental Franklin D Roosevelt outraged his more traditional countrymen in 1939 by moving Thanksgiving up one week in order to stimulate Christmas shopping. Appalled by FDR's vulgarity but mindful of pressure from big department stores, Congress finally fixed the observance of Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November, which this year falls on 22 November.
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Some Southern states resisted this New England holiday. One Texas governor refused to declare Thanksgiving in the Lone Star state, sneering, "It's a damned Yankee institution." But the South, the most religious section of the country, eventually succumbed to this succulent and sacred day.
Today, Thanksgiving gatherings reflect two Americas. The mobile, prosperous partakers of the global economy, who scatter to the winds in search of money and position, reconstitute themselves in extended families only at Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas. These reunions, however bathed in love they may be, are marred by the knowledge of their transience. The hugs and laughter and exclamations of "my-how-the-children- have-grown!" are pregnant with loss. For these get-togethers are sorrowfully brief, and the inwardly weeping grandparents and adult children are aware that on the morrow the family will again splinter for another year. This year the partings will be especially hard, for our next year may be filled with carnage and bloodletting.
Family life must be continuous to have meaning: without proximity, kinship fades. And such proximity is mostly found in the other America, the community of materially poorer rural and working people. They ain't got money, or visibility, but they do have each other, and this blessed stability is worth more than a garage full of 4x4s. (Film-makers and middle-class novelists depict Thanksgiving as an uneasy assemblage of quibbling neurotics, an image that rooted Americans find foreign and unfunny.)
This year, the two Americas are joined in mourning, as well as perplexity. Most Americans of whatever station really don't understand why Arab Muslims don't like us. Whatever our government's sins, we the people are overwhelmingly non-imperialist and wholly uninterested in Middle Eastern affairs. "Why don't they just leave us alone?" we wonder, the mind's eye returning to the sight of two jets smashing into the World Trade Center, and the question is repeated by those innocents on the other side of the globe whose families have the misfortune of being "collateral damage". For a day, at least, the American uneasiness will be calmed – a bit.
The significance of the celebration for Americans was made plain this past week when President Bush hailed the release of the missionaries held hostage in Afghanistan. "The good news is they'll be coming home for Thanksgiving," he said. But plenty of others won't be. The widespread fear of flying will keep many of the far-flung from going home this year, giving Thanksgiving a certain forlorn quality, as the uprooted professionals of the successful class spend the day alone, or with other deracinated pilgrims of mobile America, connected to their extended families only by the flimsy tether of a telephone cord – or, even more pathetically, via email.
But the depression lifts on the day after. Few non-retail employers are Scrooge enough to demand work on the Friday following Thanksgiving, which is now hallowed as the opening day of the Christmas shopping season. For the lonely, a day of gift-buying can chase away the melancholy; for those of us enbosomed in family, Friday is leftover day, with its menu of turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, and everything short of turkey ice-cream.
These are parlous and jittery days in America. Our fields remain as fruitful as in Lincoln's time, but our skies are far from healthful. We shall thank God for our families and communities, and pray for those at war, or those with war in their hearts. We might even remember that the first European Americans saw this land as a haven for dissenters, an isolated Eden at ocean's remove from the quarrels of the Old World. If such an ideal America seems impossibly distant in these dark days, well, at least we have the dream of peaceful Pilgrims and Indians.